Most of us accept that we live in a world that isn’t what it once was. Our climate seems to be changing. Oil has peaked or is close to it. The resources we count on to live as we do are in peril. And even though I’m woefully ignorant of political matters and historical matters and many other matters, I do know about food. And based on my own store of knowledge and what I have read of late, these challenges may impact us hardest and soonest in the realm of what we eat each day.
Focus on climate. There is a generally accepted rule that every one degree Celsius rise in average temperature causes a corresponding 10% decrease in grain production; this makes world grain prices soar. Since 2007, in fact, world grain prices have doubled, which hasn’t mattered much to us. But if you lived, say, in a small Middle Eastern village, your daily food costs would have increased dramatically. For 2 billion of our brothers and sisters on this planet, who already spend 50%-75% of their income on food, rising grain prices like these have meant shifting to one meal a day or even no meals at all. Couple this with population growth–every year there are 80 million new mouths to feed–and you will understand why food scarcity is becoming a norm in many parts of our world. And hungry people are not happy people.
Rising temperatures pose another challenge: they cause water tables to fall as farmers over-pump to irrigate their crops. More than half of our world currently has falling water tables.
Sadly, there’s more. Increased temperatures and poor soil management have created new deserts. Western China, Mongolia, and Africa have huge dust bowls on land that once produced food. China, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea are leasing land in other countries to grow food for their own people. Think about this for a minute. Land in Africa is now being farmed by the Chinese for people in China, and by Koreans for people in Korea. This is happening in parts of Africa–Ethiopia and Sudan–where their own people are hungry. Depriving people of the land and water they need to feed themselves will surely lead to fighting. Over food. Over water. Over misbegotten land deals.
Look, too, at peak oil. Some say we have a shortage of oil. Others say we more correctly have a shortage of cheap new oil; we can still get viscous oil that needs heavy refining to be useful. Regardless, our oil supply is not what it once was, yet our modern food system is wholly dependent on it. Shipping trucks, refrigerated trucks, tractors: these all run on oil. Pesticides and fertilizers are derived from oil. Food is processed using oil. And because the average bite now travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles, our long distance food supply depends on oil. Only 5% of what we now eat is grown in our own bioregion. Put another way, 95% of what we eat comes from somewhere else. But distance costs dollars, the amount of which is going to continue to increase. If we are to eat well, a dwindling oil supply will naturally shift our focus toward resources within close reach.
Consider empowering yourself to make a difference. A warming planet, a dwindling oil supply, and an economy that is increasingly interconnected and fragile are all going to impact how we grow and gather food. Out of necessity, we may need to become more dependent on our own efforts and those of local farmers, and less dependent on that which we can buy or which has been shipped miles.
To eat well, our food production will need to become localized, small scale, and diversified; it will need to be powered and maintained more by human energy than oil energy. It may happen that someone comes up with a new way forward and that no sacrifice will be required, but this is not likely. It’s unrealistic to think this is going to be anything but a bumpy ride. Our leaders aren’t going to get us there. We have to do it ourselves, and the cumulative effect could be substantial. If we commit to directing the process, if we alter some of our habits, we have the chance for a smoother path.
Those of us who know how to grow food can provide for ourselves and those we love. Just 70 years ago, the average bite traveled no more than 100 miles. Grocery stores didn’t even exist until the 1940s. Everyone knew how to “put food by.” We can do this. We can learn to rely on local food sources. We can grow our own food, meet local farmers, or learn to cook. We can fill our refrigerators and pantries with staples instead of packaged foods. We can get into the habit of cooking with what we have on hand. For some of us, a small scale flock of chickens might be an important part of our efforts. The rest of us might support local farmers who raise chickens or other animals for food.
We can learn to feed ourselves, by our own efforts or with help from local farmers. We can cook and live as if our efforts in this direction matter. Mostly, we can work toward living on a human scale, and in a way that’s centered around people and resources within our local communities. Changes like these will make a difference for us, and maybe even for our world.
Copyright 2012, Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul