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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Threats to the food supply and the importance of having a personal food strategy

As much as I try to embrace hope and technological fixes for our various problems I don’t believe we can achieve a future that does not include some form of crash and burn scenario. While I don’t expect nuclear winter or alien invasions any time soon there are a number of other issues that could impact peoples ability to feed themselves within the decade if not a lot sooner.

1. Economic collapse;

I predicted this recession over two years ago and still believe it will get a lot worse. I’ve blogged extensively on the pending collapse and believe that U.S. bankruptcy, a financial system implosion and a probable hyperinflationary spiral could plunge the U.S. and perhaps the world into a new, bigger and better Great Depression. A major result of this crash will be insanely high unemployment, the inability of people to make ends including rampant hunger.
Current weak markets and tight credit is also impacting small farmers who cannot access credit to plant despite increased world food demand.

2. Peak oil;

Data shows that peak oil will start to impact us in just a few years as the world Oil depletion rate (as per the IEA) runs at a considerable 9.1% . Mexico’s giant Cantarell field that supplies nearly 6% of U.S. demand is depleting at a staggering 18% and will probably stop exporting this year; Mexico will become a net importer of energy in 2010, competing with rather than supplying its neighbours. Russia’s production has peaked, the North Sea is nearly dead, Venezuela is hostile to the west, mismanaged, and under maintained. Indonesia has left OPEC because they are now a net importer rather than an exporter and new developments world wide have been postponed and marginal wells have been shut in due to low prices and tight credit.

Peak oil will not only impact our ability drive when, where and how we want but will drastically increase the price of food as farm equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, shipping, processing and packaging eat up huge amounts of hydro carbons. In some regions farmers have already found that the high cost of fertilizer no longer justifies their level of use as the savings more than compensate for a lower yield. Producing less actually makes their profit margin for the farm increase. If this trend spreads world wide grain production will plummet causing massive shortages. Should severe oil shortages and or fuel rationing take place, farmers may only be able plant their best land diminishing food supplies again. What would a shortage or distribution glitch do at the peak of planting or harvesting?

3. Modern seed technology;

Modern farm seed are largely hybrid varieties that will not breed true to their parents and must be purchased each year from seed companies. Many crops like GM canola and GM corn seeds are not only becoming the norm
they are also are spreading their frankenfood genes to normal varieties through pollination. Seeds are also being designed with “terminator” technology that makes them totally sterile. All these seed types have the same weakness in that they must be bred, grown, and purchased each and every year from the seed companies. Even if you do buy a seed variety that does breeds true, companies like Monsanto will hunt you down like a dog if they think you saved seed from year to year. This places great financial burden on farmers who until a few decades ago were seed independent by saving a portion of their crop every year for replanting. Barring a crop failure or a change of crop seed saving farmers never needed to buy seed.

The “seed dependant farmer’ is great deal for the seed companies who can produce a high priced proprietary product that farmers must buy every year whether their previous crop failed or not. In many cases in the third world the same seed companies have bought out their competition and reduced the availability of conventional open pollinated heritage seeds that were uniquely adapted to each region, ravaging local bio diversity. If farmers try to return to traditional crops to escape the costs of hybrid/GM seeds they can’t find anyone who can supply them

Modern super seeds can also pose several additional problems such as their heavy fertilizer, irrigation and pesticide requirements, creating more damaged soil, more poisoned labourers, more drained aquifers and more oppressive debt for farmers. In the India for example suicide by farmers has become an epidemic.

4. Global warming, natural disasters and stupidity;

In recent years there have been increased crop loss from flood and storms, such as the Burma monsoon and drought in south America, drought desertification, urbanization, mismanagement and diversion of good land to luxury crops in China add in cases of blight and there have actually been stories about seed shortages, here, here, and here
Crop loses are bad enough and can really hurt world food supplies but what happens if these loses hit the seed companies discussed what do farmers plant, and what do we eat?

5. Distribution system;

The huge blackout of 2003 or the Quebec ice storm a few years earlier shows that many people are not prepared for an emergency even a few days in duration, let alone a long term one. A release by agriculture Canada says we are not prepared for a regional or national food emergency of the like that would be caused by a flu epidemic. If a epidemic/pandemic stuck us the just in time delivery system will create almost instant shortages in fresh produce as shippers, drivers, manufactures, and farmers could face labour shortages and if borders shut were down we don’t even produce our own cans and jars for food packaging.

Retail stores could also close over health concerns, staffing issues or a drop in deliveries that leave the stores empty in just a couple of days.

What we have here is a very dangerous situation; the world food supply is extremely fragile and the typical western expectation that the Wally Mart’s of the world will always have full shelves, large variety and low prices is suicidally stupid at best. We still have growing populations who demand housing on prime real estate, Asians are becoming more prosperous and taking on our meat and dairy loving gluttonous habits and the world financial situation can put any one of us out of work, or freeze up the capital farmers need to operate. People need to get their heads out of their asses and start paying attention to the possibility or a real food crisis.

So what can you do?

Store extra food while it’s still cheap and abundant. There are lots of sites that promote this activity but be warned if you go crazy and buy months worth of MREs, or freeze dried camp food it’s going to set you back a lot . Be rational and buy extra of those things you already eat, things that store well and will give you high nutritional value for your money. Buy extra over time and build up to your goal rather than rationalize a $4000 shopping spree.

If you wish to have some of the high end emergency foods ready to take in your bug-out-bag fine, but be warned, no one will be happy living on an endless diet of unfamiliar and perhaps unpalatable emergency foods in a prolonged emergency. If you DO buy a months worth of MRE’s buy a month worth of laxative too, you'll need it.

Knowing what foods to store, how to store it properly , the shelf life of stored goods, and how to make it into a palatable meal must all be considered before you start filling your basement with Spam, Kraft dinner or MREs. Your storage plan should be personalize to keep you healthy, full and reasonably content, especially if you have picky eaters or kids. If you don't eat it now don't expect you'll enjoy eating 5 cases of it later.

While I expect a long term emergency to develop in the future its good to remember that short term emergencies do happen making food storage vital for everyone even if you don’t share my long term world view.

Sharon Astyk's blog is a great source for food storage tips including course she offers.
Her recent post on Getting your family on board with food storage is a very useful and funny

Should you take the dangers seriously and decide to do some large scale storage this food Calaculator can rough out your needs for a year giving you a starting point to customize your choices or scale your storage program.

Learn to cook from scratch with locally grown and storable foodstuffs. Not only will you shave huge amounts of fat, sugar, salt and calories from your diet compared to processed foods, if you do it right you should be able to feed yourself for a faction of the money you spend now, freeing up money for other things or to offset the expected surge in food prices in the future. Buying local encourages local farming, sustaining the production of food near where people actually live. Buy produce in bulk in season while it’s cheap and can, freeze, or dry your way to food security.

Wean yourself off the excessive consumption of meat. Meat is at least 7 times less efficient to produce as plant based protein, is proven unhealthy in large quantities (especially red meat), and can quickly use up a large portion of your grocery budget. As an devout lacto-ovo, yeasto-beefo vegetarian (that is a person who will eat any veggie as long as it covered in cheese sauce and served with a steak and beer) I understand the reluctance on this front. I also understand that the removal or reduction of meat can turn a $20 dollar meal into a $6 dollar meal in one stroke. Soups, stews, casseroles, chili, and stir frys can all be quite cheap and just as satisfying with SMALL portions of meat. A chicken breast chopped into meal can easily feed a family not just make one portion.

While all of these strategies will help see you through in a hard spot the Cuban example during the special period shows us that in times of crisis personal, community and national food independence is essential to survival. Like the English cottage gardens of the Victorian age, the Victory gardens of the second world war or early North American homesteads, people need to take responsibility for the their own food supply again to the extent their situation allows. Just 2 or 3 generations ago the majority of people worked the land and were responsible for their own survival but now we’ve abrogated our responsibility to provide for our families to corporations who profit that we might eat substandard food, who patent the very means of life and sustenance, who tamper with the genome without regard for the consequences and who sells poisons for farmers to spray on our food. This is wrong and foolish.

Be it a back yard plot, balcony containers, a community garden or a CSA people need to become directly involved in their own food security because there are simply too many ways our current system can fail us. When the system does fails people are not going to learn the skills over night, they won’t be able source the tools and seeds, won’t have time form community gardens or change the laws allowing them to garden their front lawns quickly, the process must begin now. When the system fails shares at existing CSAs and allocations at those few active community gardens will simply not be available for those who don’t have their foot in the door.

Ideally you should store extra food when on sale but more importantly learn to can and store what you grow and reduce your independence on the system. While you should learn to cook from scratch, do so with the produce you harvest with your own hands. If you must eat meat buy it in small quantities from local sources that breed heritage animals in healthy conditions that don’t need reproductive intervention to breed or massive antibiotic treatments to stay healthy, if you can call being awash in chemicals healthy!

Lobby municipal governments to grant vacant land to community Gardens or CSAs and push to have draconian laws banning front yard food production struck down. If you are in a semi rural area with large lots you can even press council to allow modest amounts of well cared for small livestock such as hens and rabbits. Two lambs cutting your grass saves gas and make damn fine meals.

Learn to garden now before it’s essential. Classical row gardening allows room for workers and machines but will not squeeze the max from your land. An especially good systems for small intensive gardening with small plot or containers is Square foot Gardening

There are however as many right ways to garden as wrong ways and finding what works for you will take time. I tend towards a heavy mulching technique to lessen the work of watering and weeding but others find this too messy or cannot source enough mulch.

Begin to improve your soil with any chemical free organics you can source. If you have a neighbour who bags his grass clipping and does not spray chemicals ask for them. Compost anything you can from your own kitchen, you can even worm compost for really top notch fertilizer. Go to the effort of planting some form of green manure in the fall so you can turn fresh organics into the soil come spring planting. Scrounge or buy old glass from friend or neighbour’s window replacement job or a reuse store and build cold frames to extend your season. It takes time and effort to make a monoculture suburban yard into a productive garden, start now while you have luxury of retail plenty to fall back on should you make mistakes or loose a crop. Get the tools you need to garden as well as rain barrels and composters

Most importantly buy a good variety of open pollinated seed and learn how to harvest and store seeds from season to season , suggested reading for this would be Seed to Seed: by Suzanne Ashworth
You don’t want to worry about seed shortages or the added expense of becoming perpetually reliant on large seed companies who may not have your best interests in mind.

You should even buy extra seeds and store them against the possibility of crop failures, as gifts to unaware friends and family or as a premium barter item should things get real crappy.

Buy your seeds from a reputable seed house that specializes in open pollinated and heritage varieties. If you are lucky you might find a local one with varieties best suited for your climate and soil. In my case I’ve been buying from either Salt Spring Seeds (Canada), Heritage Harvest Seed (Canada) or Seed Savers Exchange(U.S.) none of which are local but all have good online selections for purchase. If you become member of Seed Savers Exchange you get access to a truly huge selection of heritage crops.

For those that want the seed security option for later but can’t garden now, you can buy plastic pails containing 24-49 seed varieties selected by regions already packaged and ready to drop in the freezer for extra long seed viability. I have the Northern Gardener selection frozen in addition to the seeds I buy yearly to plant or store. The kits whould plant nearly an acre and feed a family for a year if you put in the work needed.

Well this post got away from me so I'd best finish up here, just remember there is nothing insane or paranoid about being prepared.Recommend this Post