Monday, May 2, 2011

Food Glorious Food?

There is suddenly a lot of fear about our food supply. For decades most of us have taken for granted that food magically appears on our shelves in plentiful amounts, like some sort of magical cornucopia that constantly refills. Most of us have not bothered to ask the uncomfortable questions about how this takes place. In recent years, however, people have increasingly questioned the mechanism that keep this going, and wondered if it is just going to continue forever. Once you peek under the hood, you realize how much energy-intensive technological wizardry is required to bring you even the basic foods in your pantry.

First up is an article on the farmed fish Tilapia craze. The reason Tilapia is grown on fish farms is because they have the same criteria we select for in farmed animals - they live in crowded conditions, mature quickly, and put on weight rapidly. Just as importantly, they eat corn and soy - the cheap feed crops that dominate agriculture and what we feed to all our other farmed animals. None of these animals have evolved to eat these foods, however, meaning that the ration of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids is out of whack. Tilapia are particularly low in Omega-3.

There is an aquaponics facility not far from me that raises Tilapia. I can remember one of the proprietors talking to another person about how hard it was to run the business trying to compete against the cheap Chinese Tilapia, which are often raised under horrible conditions. This raises another point tangential to this article - the idea that "free trade" has been a boon to entrepreneurship. It's been the exact opposite, as American entrepreneurs are constantly cut off at the knees by cheap imports from China. And this effects literally every sector, from food to manufacturing, driving honest American entrepreneurs out of business and making us utterly dependant on massive global corporations which can use labor arbitrage to undercut the competition. Fortunately, the aquaponics facility has managed to make a go of it, often through grants. But back to our topic. One thing that stood out for me was near the end of the article:

Although environmentalists long battled to shut down Nicanor, the Nicaraguan fish farm is failing for another reason: cheap frozen tilapia fillets from China.

Imports of frozen tilapia to the United States rose 30 percent in 2010, as fresh fillet imports dropped 2 percent, reducing demand from smaller producers like Nicanor. Much of the fish that China exports is what producers call “refreshed,” which means it is frozen and packed in carbon monoxide to preserve color so it can be thawed and sold in fish displays, where it will appear to have been recently caught. Even in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, the tilapia on supermarket shelves is from China.

“People wanted to pay $3.99 a pound for this frozen stuff rather than $5.99 for fresh, especially during the recession,” said Mr. Senna, the Nicanor manager. Chinese fish farms are regarded as poorly regulated, Dr. Bridson said, which is why the world needs clearer standards for sustainable fish farming and consumer labeling. Until then, the biggest producer offering the cheapest product is poised to win.

Yep, frozen, packed in cabin monoxide(!) and flown halfway around the world. I wonder how much energy that takes. And it's still cheaper than the Tilapia I can buy that is literally raised a few blocks from my house! How is that possible? The "global economy" doesn't seen to be very energy efficient, does it? But, of course, we don't base our economy around energy efficiency, we base it on arbitrary values of pieces of paper.

That reminds me of the incredibly energy-intensive way bananas get to our shelves. According to Wikipedia:

Export bananas are picked green, and ripen in special rooms upon arrival in the destination country. These rooms are air-tight and filled with ethylene gas to induce ripening. The vivid yellow color normally associated with supermarket bananas is in fact a side effect of the artificial ripening process.[citation needed] Flavor and texture are also affected by ripening temperature. Bananas are refrigerated to between 13.5 and 15 °C (56 and 59 °F) during transport. At lower temperatures, ripening permanently stalls, and turns the bananas gray as cell walls break down.

Bananas must be transported over long distances from the tropics to world markets. To obtain maximum shelf life, harvest comes before the fruit is mature. The fruit requires careful handling, rapid transport to ports, cooling, and refrigerated shipping. The goal is to prevent the bananas from producing their natural ripening agent, ethylene. This technology allows storage and transport for 3–4 weeks at 13 °C (55 °F). On arrival, bananas are held at about 17 °C (63 °F) and treated with a low concentration of ethylene. After a few days, the fruit begins to ripen and is distributed for final sale.

So much for "natural" food. Between carbon monoxide and absorbic acid, I wonder how much of the food we eat is only possible thanks to chemical engineering. I, for one, find this a little uncomfortable.

Commentators on energy have repeatedly warned of how much energy it takes to bring these goods to our shelves. This is scary stuff. It's one thing if you don't have a part for your car on the shelf. It's another if you don't have food. So thanks to our wonderful "globalized" corporate economy, we've become reliant on outside producers and tenuous supply chains to meet our essential food needs. Does anyone else see how this might be a problem? This is not the only way we've entwined China into our integrated "just-in-time" food supply, thanks to the corporate race to the bottom:

The issue with getting critical products from one place is that, as we’ve seen over recent years, the world isn’t predictable. Global disruptions — like an economic squabble with China, a massive political upheaval in the Middle East, or a natural disaster like the tsunami in Japan — have the capacity to topple the very fragile U.S. import structure. The culprit? Our reliance on monopolistic, single-source production and distribution structure for things we need to survive, says Barry.

China currently has a production stranglehold over a critical chemical compound that helps keep food fresh — ascorbic acid. We use this to preserve almost all the food that is on the store shelves. It’s essential to keep food on America’s tables, and we don’t have any control over its production or distribution.

“It was first synthesized by an American scientist, it was first mass produced by an American company. 100% of our ascorbic acid or vitamin C now comes from China,” says Barry. “In terms of pricing, just about to the day that the Chinese finished capture and control over our supply of Vitamin C, ascorbic acid, they jacked up the price by 400%,” says Barry.

Monopolistic supply chains, because of their single-source distribution system, can easily fail during a catastrophic event. ”When that monopoly vendor decides to buy all of some good or import us some good from some place offshore, if there is any break in trade, then you don’t get “that thing” — and that thing might be really important. It might be an ingredient that goes in your food supply — a really vital ingredient. It might be semi-conductor chips that go into all of the products you use. So if you allow a monopolist to concentrate all of your production of something really important far away like in northern Japan for instance, all of a sudden because an earthquake, or an uprising, or a little spat, a political spat that we might have with the Chinese, all of a sudden you don’t have that thing,” says Barry

Tying all this nicely together with an article I read over the weekend which was rerun at the Of Two Minds site from 2007, entitled Peak Oil and Soil:

There are two parts to this: First is that readers may not realize the gravity of the situation concerning food and Peak Oil. There is a wing of the Peak Oil argument that statistically demonstrates how food presently can be said to be a form of oil. Numbers run as high as 10 calories of oil per calorie of food, which with 2,000 mile Caesar salads from California and 10,000 mile apples from New Zealand, is not hard to believe.

In fact, every step of the food chain rests entirely on oil and cheap energy: seed production and storage; plowing and planting via diesel tractors; irrigation of the desert by diesel pumps; fertilizer created from natural gas, without which tired fields that have no natural tilth or manure could not otherwise produce; pesticides and herbicides created from oil and applied with tractors; the harvest by diesel combine and shipped by semi from remote areas; the drying of grain or year-round cold storage; shipping by truck center to the mill and then the grocery where coolers and air conditioning with computer registers and just-in-time inventory again support the entire process.

In fact, there is less than a week’s supply of food in the entire food chain, while consumers—in contrast to America before 1960--hold less than a week’s worth of food at home. …In their refrigerators.

The “Green Revolution”, which ended the famines of the 70’s, could arguably be said to be a result of eating oil. The logical conclusion is that without cheap oil, we must again return to those times, except with 1/3 more population.

It's definitely worth a read, particularly if you keep in mind those more recent articles cited above:

So now you can see why I'm so passionate about gardening and local agriculture. It's not just a hobby - I think we're all going to have to start paying attention, and not just assume that "they" will always get that food to the shelves.

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