Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I Hate To Say This, But Now I'm Really Scared

This is not hyperbole, just the way I feel at this minute. Knowing about something and seeing it in your backyard are two different things. Check out this article in the New York Sun: there's food rationing in the US. I'll say that again: THERE IS FOOD RATIONING IN THE USA. And this does not look like it's going to get any better.

Admittedly, there's no militia at the door, no line-ups, no panic. But this is one of the richest countries in the world with the most elaborate industrial food system on the planet--a place that literally eats from the whole planet--and they are having trouble supplying staples like rice and flour.

Living on the farm for a decade and a half, I'm used to having two to six months of food put by--separate from the two-week's-worth of food in the pantry. Depending on the time of year (more in November, less in April) we would have bags of flour, ten kilos of rolled oats, rice, pasta, canned goods, extra olive oil by the litre or gallon, honey, just stacks of food binned up or canned or frozen.

Now, living in a city again, we don't take the same care with our food security. We sorted through the bins yesterday--before I read this article--and while it was good to see a week or two of food on hand, it was still only a week or two. I've felt off-balance all winter, knowing that there wasn't enough food in the house. I've told myself "It's okay. We're not likely to get snowed in for a week in Victoria, there's money on a semi-regular basis, we'll be okay." And we have been.

But the system has not been. We've stressed our food supply chain worldwide. No one has bothered with local food security, relying instead on the continued availability of unsustainably cheap fossil fuels. Canada, Canada cannot feed itself. We produce enough calories, but not in a broad enough spectrum of foods. We rely instead on providing inputs into the industrial food chain, exporting things like hogs and beef by the (yes, really) mega-tonne. But how is all that exported protein raised? At the expense of broad-based food crops. The money is in industrial food exports, not in feeding ourselves.

We've developed this insanely complex system that relies on cheap fossil fuels and the movement of commodities to maximize profits, and there comes a point where such complex systems become chaotic. With climate change racing ahead (and the developed world really ignoring the problem) and oil prices touching $115/barrel as I write this, we've introduced new variables
and new uncertainties into an over-stressed system. We may be fucked.

We might get lucky, it might be a great growing season this summer in the northern hemisphere. Maybe. But I'm not holding my breath. I don't
foresee any problems over the next five months here--even with only a
mediocre season--but any weirdness on the part of the weather this
summer and we could be seeing rationing by winter solstice.

"[...]Costco members were being allowed to buy only one bag. Moments earlier, a clerk dropped two sacks back on the stack after taking them from another customer who tried to exceed the one-bag cap.

"Due to the limited availability of rice, we are limiting rice purchases
based on your prior purchasing history," a sign above the dwindling
supply said.

Shoppers said the limits had been in place for a few days, and that rice supplies had been spotty for a few weeks. A store manager referred questions to officials at Costco headquarters near Seattle, who did not return calls or e-mail messages yesterday.

An employee at the Costco store in Queens said there were no restrictions on rice buying, but limits were being imposed on purchases of oil and flour. Internet postings attributed some of the shortage at the retail level to bakery owners who flocked to warehouse stores when the price of flour from commercial suppliers doubled.

The curbs and shortages are being tracked with concern by survivalists who view the phenomenon as a harbinger of more serious trouble to come.

"It's sporadic. It's not every store, but it's becoming more commonplace," the editor of, James Rawles, said. "The number of reports I've been getting from readers who have seen signs posted with limits has increased almost exponentially, I'd say in the last three to five weeks."" (from the New York Sun article)


I see there has been a lot of discussion about this rationing on the mainstream news outlets."There is no shortage of rice" they repeat, trying to avert panic. And a good thing, too. Americans are prone to panic--see 9/11.
But the original article pointed out that there were restrictions also on the purchase of cooking oil and flour (note also that Canadian farmers have moved away from growing wheat destined for bread). Again, this is in the world's most voracious consumer population. And the one that dominates the world's food supply. And this was not just at Costco, but also at Sam's Club outlets. These are not the problems of some corner grocer, but of some major wholesale heavyweights.
And this is not an isolated problem. The world food shortage--well, as usual, more of a distribution problem with radically higher prices--cannot help but impact us here in North America. We've buggered our food supply system, concentrating on industrial food at the expense of secure supply. Saskatchewan's PotashCorp., the world's largest supplier of potash for agricultural uses (it's a feedstock for fertilizer production), cannot supply enough potash to meet the current demand.
The U.N. World Food Program is having its own difficulties as well;

In a video conference from Rome, WFP Executive
Director Josette Sheeran told UN reporters that soaring food prices and
tight supplies are endangering the efforts of the agency to feed
millions of hungry people around the world.

"We can buy 40 percent less food than we could last June with the same contribution," Sheeran said." [reported by the Xinhua News Agency]

North Americans are going to have to get used to the idea that not only is the price of gas going to rise to $1.50/litre this summer (although possibly easing come fall), but natural gas prices, home heating oil prices, and the cost of electricity generated from oil, gas, or coal is also likely to rise, and we are no longer going to be able to count on food costs being less than 10% of our household budget.

There are the usual suspects in all this--Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times details a few of them:

"Governments and private grain dealers used to hold large inventories
in normal times, just in case a bad harvest created a sudden shortage.
Over the years, however, these precautionary inventories were allowed
to shrink, mainly because everyone came to believe that countries
suffering crop failures could always import the food they needed.

left the world food balance highly vulnerable to a crisis affecting
many countries at once — in much the same way that the marketing of
complex financial securities, which was supposed to diversify away
risk, left world financial markets highly vulnerable to a systemwide [sic]

There's more, and it's a not-bad short read. But to get some deeper insight into where the problems are coming from, I can't help but recommend by standbys: Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, and, funnily enough, Planet of Slums by Mike Davis to get a sense of how badly we handle systemic problems.

The storm is here: global climate change (see Australia's major drought), higher prices for petroleum products (everything from gasoline to ethylene), higher commodity prices (potash in particular), and an industrial food system unlinked from the populations they're supposed to serve, mean that we are in for a bumpy and desperate ride over the next few years. With luck and foresight--the latter not something I count on our corporate and political masters to provide--we might come out the other end alive and with an improved system of agriculture. But I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, become friends with a farmer, buy local, and grow (where possible) and preserve your own food. It can't hurt, and, who knows, it might even help save your family, your community, and the planet.

(posted Friday, April 25th)


  1. Ever since I came back to the island I've been saying how surprised I am at how little we grow in this great climate. Dig up your lawn!! Every single person who owns a house should be made to have a veg garden. England had to do it during the war. I've been supporting local farmers most of my life. I ate cariboo & moose meat when I lived up north. I'm growing vegetable this year and I hope I get a good crop. More community gardens are needed too for a condo & apartment dwellers. It needs to be done NOW!!

  2. Well, if there is not enough rice, let them eat cake. Oh, wait, that didn't work out so well last time.