Wednesday, March 9, 2011

About the food supply

It is damn difficult to worry about the food supply in USA--to the point where only a tiny fraction of the public has ANY idea where food comes from or how it gets to them.  When someone claims that milk comes from the local convenience store (rather than a cow), you are dealing with a typical level of food ignorance.

Even more telling here in Minnesota is the incredible abundance of food.  Not only is it grown by the boxcar in much of the state, here in the Minneapolis suburbs food is distributed through a dizzying array of outlets from tidy farmer's markets to supermarkets that range from very nice to opulent.  Our biggest employers spout names like General Mills and Cargill.  And best of all, food is so cheap one wonders how anyone stays in business.  Yesterday, I paid $1.98 for a gallon of milk--someone is working for free (or less) in that supply chain.

So it is hard to convince anyone around here that a shortage of food is even possible, let alone a subject worth starting revolutions over.  Ironically, the folks MOST likely to worry about the food supply are those who still work in agriculture or food processing.  I have known farmers all my life and some of them wonder darkly when this whole system will collapse in the face of a hungry planet.

Warning Of 'Food Price Riots In The UK'
10:23pm UK, Tuesday March 08, 2011
Peter Hoskins, senior business producer
A senior economist at the worldwide bank HSBC has warned of civil unrest in Britain if food prices continue to soar.
Speaking on Jeff Randall Live, senior global economist Karen Ward cautioned that the UK could experience the kind of food riots seen in other countries.
"Even in the developed world I think we have very, very low wage growth, so people aren't getting more in their pay packet to compensate them for food and energy, and I think we could see social unrest certainly in parts of the developed world and the UK as well."
She went on to highlight the link between high food prices and the escalating cost of crude oil.
"More and more we are seeing that some of these foodstuffs are actually substitutes for energy itself, particularly biofuels. So I think the energy markets are a significant contributor to these food price gains." more (includes a video that I cannot embed)
You wonder why farmers talk about the weather all the time?  Well it's because weather is a matter of life and death for them.  Nothing quite like watching a year's crops destroyed in three minutes by hail to illustrate how vulnerable the food supply is to the weather.
Climate change 'number one issue'

El Salvador is "already" facing wild weather, the country's environment minister tells Al Jazeera.
Dahr Jamail Last Modified: 02 Mar 2011 18:00 GMT

San Salvador - "We have a very clear position," El Salvador’s Minister of Environment, Herman Chavez, told Al Jazeera at his office in San Salvador, the capital.

"The President of El Salvador, last year on July 20th, in an extraordinary meeting of presidents that was convened here in San Salvador, launched the intervention process. We put Climate Change as the number one issue for the region."

The government of El Salvador's position, which mirrors that of other Central American countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras, is due to the fact that anthropogenic (human caused) climate change is impacting the planet more than ever, and scientists expect it to worsen.

In January, new figures provided by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that Earth’s global average surface temperature for 2010 tied 2005 for the hottest year on record. The two agencies' figures also showed that 2010 was the wettest year ever recorded.

Wild weather

2010 proved to be a model year for what the planet can expect as the result of climate change. Huge floods occurred in Pakistan, Australia, and California. A record-breaking heat wave in Russia, and the severe die-offs of coral reefs underscored the acceleration of the global trends in Climate Change.

Last year was also the 34th consecutive year that global temperatures have been above the 20th-century average, and nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 due to what scientists attribute to a 40 per cent increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began.

"Climate change for us is not a hypothesis,” Minister Chavez added. "It is a very concrete reality that strikes us. The disasters we've been having are very clearly linked to climate change."

El Salvador, like other countries in the region, has been dramatically affected by severe weather events including extreme rain events and flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes that are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

The comments come as the United Nations warned the cost of food is now at the highest level for 21 years and set to rise further.
Food costs have gone up for eight months in a row, with the National Farmers Union forecasting the trend will continue for the rest of 2011.
The cost of basic foodstuffs has been caused by increasing demand and extreme weather destroying crops and has been partly to blame for the unrest sweeping the arabic world. more
Because my father's people came from Kansas, I was introduced to the wonders / problems of the Ogallala Aquifer as a small child.  This aquifer lies under some of the most sparsely populated land on earth so there are damn few people who really understand how the global food supply is juiced by "mining" water from this incredible gift of nature.  But it seems Ogallala has now even attracted the attention of The Telegraph of London.  As someone who had actual childhood nightmares about the problem of what happens when Ogallala is pumped dry, I don't much envy their readers.
US farmers fear the return of the Dust Bowl
For years the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water, has irrigated thousands of square miles of American farmland. Now it is running dry.
By Charles Laurence 7:00AM GMT 07 Mar 2011
There is not much to be happy about these days in Happy, Texas. Main Street is shuttered but for the Happy National Bank, slowly but inexorably disappearing into a High Plains wind that turns all to dust. The old Picture House, the cinema, has closed. Tumbleweed rolls into the still corners behind the grain elevators, soaring prairie cathedrals that spoke of prosperity before they were abandoned for lack of business.
Happy's problem is that it has run out of water for its farms. Its population, dropping 10 per cent a year, is down to 595. The name, which brings a smile for miles around and plays in faded paint on the fronts of every shuttered business – Happy Grain Inc, Happy Game Room – has become irony tinged with bitterness. It goes back to the cowboy days of the 19th century. A cattle drive north through the Texas Panhandle to the rail heads beyond had been running out of water, steers dying on the hoof, when its cowboys stumbled on a watering hole. They named the spot Happy Draw, for the water. Now Happy is the harbinger of a potential Dust Bowl unseen in America since the Great Depression.
'It was a booming town when I grew up,' Judy Shipman, who manages the bank, says. 'We had three restaurants, a grocery, a plumber, an electrician, a building contractor, a doctor. We had so much fun, growing up.' Like all the townsfolk, she knows why the fun has gone. 'It's the decline in the water level,' she says. 'In the 1950s a lot of wells were drilled, and the water went down. Now you can't farm the land.'
Those wells were drilled into a geological phenomenon called the Ogallala Aquifer. It is an underground lake of pristine water formed between two and six million years ago, in the Pliocene age, when the tectonic shifts that pushed the Rocky Mountains skywards were still active. The water was trapped below the new surface crust that would become the semi-arid soil of the Plains, dry and dusty. It stretches all the way down the eastern slope of the Rockies from the badlands of South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. It does not replenish.
Happy is the canary in the coalmine because the Ogallala is deepest in the north, as much as 300ft in the more fertile country of Nebraska and Kansas. In the south, through the panhandle and over the border to New Mexico, it is 50-100ft. And around Happy, 75 miles south of Amarillo, it is now 0-50ft. The farms have been handed over to the government's Conservation Reserve Programme (CRP) to lie fallow in exchange for grants: farmers' welfare, although they hate to think of it like that. more

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