Market disruption, food crisis, or famine? It’s all the same.
What to do about the coming food crisis
A food crisis is brewing for the world. We used to call it famine. Everyone knows it is coming. Even the President of the United States warned Americans of a food shortage. Presidents who talk like that are very unpopular. A wise person may conclude that something serious is going on here.
We are led to believe this is all about Ukraine, but it isn’t. The Ukraine-Russia war is just a catalyst. The food crisis is the cumulative effect of three forces—globalization, climate change, and that war. Globalization has put nearly all agricultural commodities into a global market, which means that we become dependent for nearly all items on events that happen in other parts of the world. We have lost self-sufficiency. From an American's standpoint, we see the result in overflowing grocery store shelves. But that abundance is temporary. You could say it is a mirage.
Globalization means that we are intimately connected to regions of the world that provide our foods, yet we cannot see the climate change impacts that are happening to our food supply. As frost comes increasingly to Florida, the area will become incapable of growing oranges. Same with coffee areas of South and Central America. And bananas. Big cattle country in Texas and Oklahoma are seeing their grass dry up—you need grass to feed cattle. Climate change is drying up the Colorado River, which is central to agriculture in several southwest states. As temperatures change in Minnesota, the corn-soybean rotation, which is so critical to many farmers, will no longer work. On and on and on it goes.
Perhaps most consequential of all, the central valley of California—the area that grows most of the produce for the nation—is in a severe, multi-year drought, and it probably will not get water this year. The central valley grows cereal grains, hay, cotton, tomatoes, vegetables, citrus, tree fruits, nuts, table grapes, and wine grapes—in other words, just about everything. According to the Los Angeles Times, however, “With California entering a third year of drought and its reservoirs at low levels, the federal government has announced plans to deliver minimal amounts of water through the Central Valley Project, putting many farmers on notice that they should prepare to receive no water from the system this year.” Because of the shortages, officials expect to have significant acreage in “fallow” this year. Further south, near San Diego, water allocations are 15% of the normal allocation. That will restrict production there, as well.
Global trade is based on different areas having certain advantages over others for producing certain kinds of commodities. Each area specializes based on market forces, but in so doing, they give up a certain amount of production diversity. They build infrastructure for the cash crop that goes to market but underinvest in that which would make them more self-reliant. As a result, we are all exposed to the risk that far away weather patterns can change what’s on the grocery store shelf—and the price you will need to pay to acquire it.
Now, enter Russia-Ukraine. Russian production has less and less access to the market. They grow 19% of the world’s wheat. Ukraine grows 12%. Their combined direct impact on food availability is enormous. Take away nearly 1/3 of the supply in any market, and there will be impacts. This is what President Biden was referring to. Of course, the lie is that it is all about Russia-Ukraine. It’s about all of it. The world is entering an extremely precarious time, and this war is not helpful.
What do we do about it?
To live better in this worsening world, don’t rush out to the store and hoard everything. That’s how we bring about rationing. Bad idea. It is like bullying: “I got mine so good luck sucker!” Hoarding only makes any shortages worse.
The crisis that is coming is gradual—there is no need to panic. We just need to be smart. It is a good idea to prepare incrementally while there is time to do so.
Here's what I am doing: I am freeing up cupboard space for storing canned and dried goods. I’ll add to it later. When I go shopping, I’m adding about 10% to my grocery budget each week to gradually accumulate a store of dried and canned food. This makes sense to ease any shortages, and it makes sense financially. Inflation has heated up and will continue driving up prices. Buying now, when prices are lower, makes sense because I will consume that food soon anyway, one way or the other.
I also found a community garden to join. I’m not pollyannish enough to think that this is a full solution or that I can grow a year’s worth of food on a community garden plot. Nonetheless, growing your own has two benefits. First, you can get some fresh food for yourself and your family. When the shortages become apparent, you will have an alternative that is fresher and better tasting anyway. Second, growing your own is a way to add some small aspect of resilience to the overall community in which one lives. It provides a supplement to the globalized food business. Whatever you grow for your own use does not have to be shipped in, and if supplies are limited, there’s more for those who cannot produce their own. Indeed, few things are as subversive to the capitalist system as producing for your own needs—at least at an individual level. If you can’t grow your own, try a CSA subscription. At least it shortens the space between producer and consumer.
Finally, more for the long term, electrify your life. Move away from things that burn—combustion engines, furnaces, gas stoves—and toward electric vehicles, heat pumps, and electric ranges. Why? Because once you are electrified, you can replace the source with solar, wind, or other renewable. You cannot do that with things that burn because all they can do is burn stuff. Electrification provides the opportunity to change fuels; nothing else does.
If you have other ideas for preparing, feel free to share them below. I’d like to hear what others are doing.
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