Friday, July 26, 2013

Assorted Food Links

Our Coming Food Crisis (New York Times):
What’s more, when food and forage crops, as well as livestock, have had to endure temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than the long-term averages, they require far more water than usual. The Western drought, which has persisted for the last few years, has already diminished both surface water and groundwater supplies and increased energy costs, because of all the water that has to be pumped in from elsewhere.

If these costs are passed on to consumers, we can again expect food prices, especially for beef and lamb, to rise, just as they did in 2012, the hottest year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than 1,500 counties — about half of all the counties in the country — were declared national drought disaster areas, and 90 percent of those were hit by heat waves as well.

The answer so far has been to help affected farmers with payouts from crop insurance plans. But while we can all sympathize with affected farmers, such assistance is merely a temporary response to a long-term problem.

- One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards...And we have a great source of compostable waste: cities. Since much of the green waste in this country is now simply generating methane emissions from landfills, cities should be mandated to transition to green-waste sorting and composting, which could then be distributed to nearby farms.

- Second, we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams.

- Moreover, the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of the Department of Agriculture to help farmers transition to forms of perennial agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures — rather than providing more subsidies to biofuel production from annual crops. Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to till the soil every year.

- Because of recent episodes of drought, fire and floods, we are facing the largest shortfall in the availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds in American history. Yet current budget-cutting proposals threaten to significantly reduce the number of federal plant material centers, which promote conservation best practices.

- If our rangelands, forests and farms are to recover from the devastating heat, drought and wildfires of the last three years, they need to be seeded with appropriate native forage and ground-cover species to heal from the wounds of climatic catastrophe.

Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures.
Sounds good. What's the problem? Big Ag opposes these, of course. They would rather sit back and collect the insurance.

This article claims it's mainly a problem of distribution:
"We have two or three times the amount of food right now that is needed to feed the number of people in the world," said Joshua Muldavin, a geography professor at Sarah Lawrence College who focuses on food and agricultural instruction. "A lot of people aren't analyzing the situation correctly. We can deal with short-term food shortages after a disaster, but fixing long term hunger gets ignored," he said.

"We don't have food shortage problem," said Emelie Peine, a professor of international politics and economy at the University of Puget Sound. "What we have is a distribution problem and an income problem," Peine said. "People aren't getting the food, ... and even if [they] did, they don't have enough money to buy it."

If there is enough food, a major problem causing scarcity is what we do with it, said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, an advocacy group for U.S. farmers. "Something in the area of up to half of all that's produced is wasted," said Johnson, who runs his own farm in North Dakota.
A hungry world: Lots of food, in too few places (CNBC)

We do waste a lot of food: Tristram Stuart: The global food waste scandal (TED)

We also use a hell of a lot of energy:
Just how much energy does it take to fuel the US food system? A lot. It required just over 12 Calories of fuel to produce one Calorie of food in 2002, once waste and spoilage were accounted for.1 Of these, 1.6 fuel Calories were used in the agricultural sector, while 2.7 were used to process and package food. Distribution, which includes transportation, wholesale and retail outlets, and food service operations such as restaurants and catering services, used another 4.3 fuel Calories. Finally, food-related household energy use added another 3.4 Calories to the tab. This figure has been on an upward trend; it took just over 14 fuel Calories to deliver a Calorie of consumed food in 2007, and if we extrapolate this trend the US food system requires about 15 Calories of fuel to deliver a Calorie of consumed food in 2013.

As high as this 15 Calorie figure might seem, it’s surely an underestimate. The report from which these data were drawn left out a number of sectors within the US food system that require energy as a key input to their operations, including research and development, waste disposal, water provision, and food system governance, among others. If we did a more expansive assessment of the energy use in the US food system, the total energy demand would probably be 15-20 Calories of fuel per consumed food Calorie, or more.

To put these statistics into perspective, 15 fuel Calories equates, in energy terms, to 1.2 gallons of gasoline embodied in the average American’s daily diet. That’s 420 gallons of gasoline per person per year to deliver Americans the food they eat, an amount on par with the 430 gallons the average American burns in their car. The US food system is admittedly more energy intensive than most, but high fuel demand in the service of food procurement is the norm around the world.
The Energy Cost of Food (

And here's a good reminder of the complex energy-intensive systems that permit the supermarket abundance and convenience we enjoy. And, as the article reminds us,  most of it is completely invisisble:
"The diet of the average American is almost entirely dependent on the existence of a vast, distributed winter--a seamless network of artificially chilled processing plants, distribution centers, shipping containers, and retail display cases that creates the permanent global summertime of our supermarket aisles."

This is an infrastructural truth that it's possible to take as a kind of metaphor or hyperbole because it's almost impossible to believe the scale and complexity of the systems that undergird our lives. But just imagine opening your freezer and being able to see the true narrative of the foods inside. The story isn't solely one of agriculture, of farmers picking the food, and tossing it in the back of the truck. There's so much technology and transportation embedded in those frozen peas, all of which Twilley excavates.

And it's not just the stuff in the freezer! "At least 70 percent of the food we eat each year passes through or is entirely dependent on the cold chain for its journey from farm to fork, including foods that, on the surface, seem unlikely candidates for refrigeration," Twilley writes in introducing her show. "Peanuts, for example, are stored between 34 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit in giant refrigerated warehouses across Georgia (which produces nearly half of the country's peanut harvest)."
A Journey Into Our Food System's Refrigerated-Warehouse Archipelago (The Atlantic)

And the stakes are high: We Are Now One Year Away From Global Riots, Complex Systems Theorists Say (Vice)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You would find this article interesting and on-topic:

    1. Ah, beat me to it! See today's post. Was too busy to put it up this week.


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