Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guest Post: A Plan for Food Security in a Climate with Weather Volatility

I have received some interesting writing from Eric Olson who teaches environmental studies courses at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. His degrees are in geology, forestry, and tropical forest ecology. Since I have been busy with other obligations these past two days, he has agreed to let me use his writing as a guest post. This was originally a response to NYT's food writer Mark Bittman on the future of food here. The hope is to get some discussion going about the ideas he is presenting. I will be chiming in as I love some of his ideas but not all of them. He and I have already had a short, interesting discussion online and I hope it can be continued.

Eric Olson: OK Mr. Bittman, here is a geologist / ecologist's take on food security in this nation, and subsidies that you would like cut have to do with this. It also relates to ethanol, meat, and food aid, all in all quite a package. Here goes.

If we look at historical climate data we see that North America has experienced droughts and other harsh conditions unlike anything we have experienced in historic times. I here quote our federal government's National Climate Data Center:

"Longer records show strong evidence for a drought that appears to have been more severe in some areas of central North America than anything we have experienced in the 20th century, including the 1930s drought. Tree-ring records from around North America document episodes of severe drought during the last half of the 16th century. Drought is reconstructed as far east as Jamestown, Virginia, where tree rings reflect several extended periods of drought that coincided with the disappearance of the Roanoke Colonists, and difficult times for the Jamestown colony. These droughts were extremely severe and lasted for three to six years, a long time for such severe drought conditions to persist in this region of North America."

More on paleo droughts here:

and here:

And titanic volcanic eruptions have cooled the whole world for several years, we read of "years without a summer"

See Mt Tambora, 1815-16,

If I were in charge of food security in this nation I would run simulations, like the DOD does war games, planning for the worst case. Imagine we abruptly confront no harvest over a very large part of the nation's land area. Suitable conditions remain in pockets here and there, including (for droughts) where the land is readily irrigated.

Say these conditions persist for five years, as some terrible droughts have been known to do. We divert all the grain in storage (and whatever we are still harvesting or can import) from all non-food uses to ensure sufficient calories. Production of soda and all other junk food would stop. Making of ethanol stops. We consume all cattle and pigs, because feeding grain to these animals is so inefficient, with about 10 lbs of corn needed to produce 1 pound of beef (it mostly makes manure). Most farms lie fallow and we pray dust bowl conditions do not take hold. People eat wheat bread and corn bread and some imported fruits and vegetables. Wheat, corn flour and vegetable oils are rationed.

In this scenario we would be grateful that in a typical year we had been producing a great excess of grain. Only if a typical year results in a great excess can we avoid hunger in a time when so much of the nation's farmland became unproductive. Only if we have farms and knowledgeable farmers scattered across a very large area will it be likely, by chance, that somewhere at least some farms will receive sufficient rain, or stay sufficiently productive for whatever reason, as to produce the bulk of the nation's available grain for a time. We cannot know in advance what region of the nation would be spared the worst of these years of trouble, so we need to keep farmers going everywhere to ensure that some are ready somewhere.

And here's the rub: a farm system without subsidy is not compatible with excess because the prices in a system of excess are too low. Furthermore, if in a typical year we must produce a great excess to be prepared for a time of great scarcity, we need to devise ways to consume this excess. We need productive (even if only marginally so) but also _discretionary_ ways to absorb excess. What we have that can absorb a great excess of grain either at a profit or at least at a break even basis are: 1) livestock, and suddenly the inefficiency of meat production is a feature, not a mistake! 2) ethanol or biodiesel (corn or soybeans respectively). The energy balance is poor but that is not the point, we need to consume the excess, its crucial to consume it, you can't store more and more grain, but we can "store" farms. And 3), ship it overseas, it is available during one of our typical years to help a nation somewhere having one of their bad years. But if done routinely this can undercut prices for farmers elsewhere. Our own beef and biofuels are better choices.

Many food experts may be unfamiliar with climate upsets of the distant (but geologically very recent) past, and unaccustomed to long-term thinking like this. But we all need to grapple with these implications for the someday future. I do not take pleasure in raising these points. I have long regretted food subsidies, I detest corn ethanol, its so much more sensible to use sugar. I detest CAFOs, and eat little meat, rarely beef. But I have recently learned of these extreme climate events, and they truly give me pause...