Flash in the Pan 

The price of world hunger at a store near you

The United Nations is calling the recent increase in world hunger a “silent tsunami,” as if it was triggered by a surprise event at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps “storm” says it better, brewed by a complex of converging forces, all of which, it turns out, are human-made.

Missed metaphors notwithstanding, the U.N. is paying much needed attention to how world food production practices are influencing world hunger. The agency, in conjunction with the World Bank, released a report April 15 based on a three-year study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a group made up of more than 400 scientists from around the globe. Given the hunger storm during which it was unveiled, the report might have seemed prophetic, had it not been such a rehash. Instead of breaking new ground, it offered warnings—verbatim, in places—that advocates of small, sustainable agriculture have been voicing for decades.

Out of more than 60 countries, only four—the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia—declined to approve the IAASTD findings, which concluded that modern agriculture policies and practices have reaped very unequal benefits while incurring high social and environmental costs worldwide. The study recommends, among other things, that the distance between food production and consumption should be reduced, and that food producers try using “natural processes” like crop rotation and organic fertilizer.

With the U.N. on the local-organic bandwagon, the world’s food system will hopefully get a boost in a more sustainable direction, and we’ll see if what some advocates have been saying for years is true: that good farming can solve really bad problems.

In the meantime, record-high fuel costs have made food transport more expensive, while also boosting the costs for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other industrial supplies. The price increases are passed onto consumers, who in the United States are already paying double-digit price hikes for eggs, milk, and bread. Elsewhere in the world, the high price of food has sparked riots. War and genocide over food shortages are real concerns.

Some farmers can’t afford the up-front expenses for planting, and are forced onto the sidelines while people starve. Kenyan farmers, for example, are planting a third less cropland than last year, thanks to a doubling of fertilizer costs.

Many such farmers would be better off today had they declined the agricultural “assistance” of multinational corporations and international development organizations years ago. Had they stayed with their traditional ways—most of which included practices like crop rotation, organic practices, and other recent methods sanctioned in the U.N. report—the farmers might still have healthy, living soil in their fields, food on the table, and surplus at market.

Thanks to the ethanol market, meanwhile, first-world farmers are riding the same energy curve that’s given Exxon/Mobil record-breaking profits in recent years. Now that farmers can choose between growing fuel and food, these markets are bonded at the hip.

Ironically, food prices are keeping pace with oil prices so obediently that many farmers, who until recently were considering ethanol, have decided to stick with good ol’ fashioned food crops, like wheat.

Perhaps no crop epitomizes the hunger storm better than wheat. Like oil, the price of wheat has tripled in recent years. The price is partly driven by ongoing drought in Australia (thanks, in part, to global warming). It’s also driven by another widely noted component of the hunger storm: the increased demands for meat and milk by the growing wealthy classes, most notably in China and India. As more and more land is allocated to animal feed, less and less is allocated to people feed.

In her landmark 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé argued that world hunger is not a problem of production—it’s a problem of distribution. The increasing demand for meat, milk, and ethanol, for example, reflects a distribution shift away from humans in favor of animals and cars.

Lappé argued that cattle and other ungulates should be grazing on land that is too marginal for most agriculture (also known as much of the American West, aka cattle country). If humans ate grass-fed instead of corn- and grain-fed beef, and if productive croplands fed people instead of animals, the world would have plenty to eat, she wrote. She also pointed out that while eating less meat might seem like a hardship, you might live longer for it.

In the 1970s, those views were considered radical. Today, they’re part of the corporate landscape. Sam’s Club and selected Costco stores last week limited rice purchases per customer, owing to worldwide rice shortages.

If ever there was a summer to take up gardening, this might be it, because as long-distance produce gets more and more expensive, local produce will become relatively cheap. I predict big crowds at the farmers’ markets, as supermarket shoppers face paying the true cost of food, and as they realize that local food truly does cost less.

Meanwhile, Congress is readying to ratify a new federal farm bill. It generally maintains farming as usual, including incentives for ethanol production. Most agricultural subsidies (even for gravy-train-riding ethanol farmers) have remained in place, while tax breaks for racehorse breeders have been added.

Good thing the bill increases food stamp funding, too, because we’re gonna need it. And good thing food stamps are accepted at many farmers’ markets (including Missoula’s, both of which start in May). It’s possible those coupons might go a little further there.

Ask Ari: Get black, not blue, for puffy worm work

Q: Dear Flash,

In a recent article you mentioned killing a lawn with black plastic, promising after four-to-six weeks that my former lawn would “crumble effortlessly into puffy worm poo.” What about an old blue tarp? Will that work?


—I Want To Get My Tarp On

A: My “puffy worm poo” guarantee only holds when black plastic is used, held in place around the perimeter with weights, under normal spring and summer conditions.

While I can’t say that blue won’t work, I believe that black works better. This conclusion is based on personal research, in which remote weather sensing technology (aka, the indoor/outdoor thermometer I got at the hardware store) was used to compare climatic differences beneath black, blue, and clear tarps that have been blanketing three sections of my garden for weeks.

On experiment day, the ambient temperature (in the shade beneath my housemate’s car) was 74 degrees Fahrenheit, with 13 percent humidity.

Clear plastic showed the least promise, with temperatures beneath it registering 103 degrees and 62 percent humidity. By allowing light through and retaining moisture, the clear tarp encourages weed growth—you can even see the happy quack grass underneath it.

The blue tarp came in at 101 degrees and 30 percent humidity.

The soil underneath was dryer because the blue tarp’s woven construction allowed water vapor out (and dryness helps kill weeds).

The temperature underneath the black tarp, meanwhile, reached a whopping 140 degrees, with 39 percent humidity.

In the coming weeks, as temperatures rise, I expect the humidity under the black tarp to fall off even more. In the meantime, I’m confident that black plastic has the edge over blue.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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