Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hunger Moon

In a chapter called “Living on Nothing a Year,” June Burn recounts the diet she, her husband, and two sons followed while homesteading on Waldron Island in the 1940s.

(See the Living High entry in the Northwest Favorites listing at right for more about this book.)

We planted spinach seed in the fall, hoping to have greens early in the spring. It came up in February and the first of March we had our first raw spinach salad, made of leaves so small and delicate it would have been a shame to cook them. With dressing made of heavy cream, egg and cider vinegar it was perfect with our hot hoecake…

In February wild nettles came up. We wore gloves and used scissors to gather them so as not to be stung. We ate nettles every day for two months or more, for if you keep them trimmed down they do not run to seed but continually put out tender new shoots. Nettles have a slightly medicinal flavor which we grew to like very much. And they do not sting, of course, after they are cooked.

Burn calculated that the family lived for twenty-six months on $200. Their primary “bought” foods were salt, sugar, rice, ground wheat, and--“oh blessed event”---coffee. They caught fish and dug for shellfish, kept chickens and a milk cow, and accepted surplus fruit and vegetables from an island neighbor with an established farm. “About six hours a day went into hard physical work whose only purpose was getting something to eat.”

Burn went on to point out the most people work at least six hours a day, the difference being that they earn the money to buy food rather than getting it directly. But in fact, most Americans are used to devoting only a fraction of their working day to their groceries. U.S. Department of Labor statistics from 2004 show American households averaging 14 percent of their income spent on food. That compares with World Bank figures showing over 60 percent of income (though a small fraction of the actual dollars spent) going to food for families in Tanzania, Morocco, and the Republic of Georgia. Most of the world works not to finance vacations or a snazzier car, but to eat.

Organic and sustainable growers have long pointed out that cheap U.S. food is the result of a variety of subsidies--for fuel and commodity crops in particular--and that organic foods would be much more competitive if the true cost of production, especially the environmental cost, were factored in.

Some of the discipline we can’t seem to levy on ourselves may be provided by circumstances. Food prices have risen sharply in the past year, and the trend seems likely to continue. The USDA predicts an overall rise of close to10 percent from 2006 to the end of 2008. The rise is higher for many people’s staples such as milk, eggs, and the myriad uses of corn.

“Part of the reason for increased food prices is strong demand—domestically and internationally,” says the USDA. “Total exports for calendar year 2007 were $89.9 billion, up 27 percent from 2006.” Fast-growing economies, particularly in India and China, mean that millions of people are eating more and also branching out to try a wider variety of foods. The concurrent fall in the U.S. dollar makes American food cheaper to import at the same time it makes it harder for hometown consumers to afford it.

It’s hard to complain about a newly minted Chinese computer tech moving from malnutrition to food security. But another aspect of rising prices is more problematic. King Corn is the reigning crop, and that’s not because foodies have converted en masse to morning grits and evening polenta. Corn acreage is way up, the highest since 1944 (when yield per acre was much lower) according the USDA. Prices are up too. One big reason is ethanol. Despite strong evidence that corn-based biofuel is only marginally better for the environment than petroleum, that’s the technology that got the nod from the Bush Administration and a compliant Congress.

Here’s what the International Monetary Fund, not generally considered bastion of naïve environmentalism, has to say:

Dilemma of biofuels
Using biofuels to supplement transportation fuels at modest blends—under current technology—has its pros and cons. Biofuels can supplement traditional fuels while contributing to rural development. However, until new technologies are developed, using food to produce biofuels might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further.

Realizing the potential benefits of biofuels requires better policies. Brazilian ethanol derived from sugarcane, for example, is less costly to produce than corn-based ethanol in the United States, and also yields greater environmental benefits. However, generous tax credits for blenders, tariffs on imported biofuels, and agricultural support for grain farmers in the United States and the EU make it difficult for low-cost foreign biofuel producers to compete in these markets.

If tariffs and subsidies in the United States and EU were eliminated, biofuels would likely be produced largely by lower-cost producers such as Brazil and other Latin American countries. Similarly, under such a scenario, biodiesel would be produced mostly by Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and some African countries.

In sum, while we wait for more efficient fuel technologies to emerge, the first-best policy would be to allow free trade in biofuels. This would benefit the environment as well as make biofuel economically more viable.

So food costs are rising, squeezing families as they also absorb higher fuel prices, higher health care costs, and higher unemployment; our government is wasting the opportunity to focus on truly sustainable fuel development; and global warming continues apace. Any bright spots?

There’s grass fed beef: It’s a better life for the bovines, better for consumers, better for the environment and it should become more competitive as the cost of feedlot corn rises.

Organic gardeners can skip most of the increased input costs, though seed prices have risen.

If our percentage of income spent on food rises, maybe some of the more egregiously pointless and overpriced products will go away--could we hope for the end of the Lunchable?

On the other hand, even while food prices were staying relatively stable, increasing millions of Americans were suffering from that is euphemistically termed “food insecurity.” I guess hunger sounds too primal. Jacking the price for milk and bread, as a byproduct of converting agricultural land to corn, and corn to, is not going to make their lot any easier. The Hunger Moon, a name many tribes attached to the February full moon, may stretch across the calendar for more of our neighbors. It used to be a part of a predictable cycle--by February, the stored roots and dried meats were down to moldy scraps, animals to hunt were skinny and hard to find. Hunger Moon is the darkest hour before the dawn. It’s when people and their prey both starve. It may be a reality that Chilean grapes and New Zealand lamb can’t erase forever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lane - I responded to your thread on Local Harvest and you asked if you could use my comments. Go ahead - I like what you are doing here. Walter Haugen, F.A. Farm, Ferndale (wvhaugen on Local Harvest thread).