Thursday, February 10, 2011

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

Dear Readers,
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...


  1. Thought I'd share the dialogue Eric & I had about this so far....

    Kalpa: Why wouldn't an ecologist choose to have fallow land under paid conservation programs, discourage huge corporate farms and encourage smaller farm profitability to bring more labor force back to the rural areas instead of promoting ethanol? I love the idea of the simulation game and planning for the worst as our govt seriously needs some plans in place. What about food terrorism? There are many scenarios. I have thought about your idea of ethanol being our cushion right now, but there would be better ways. It is way too driven by corporatism and politics.

    Eric: Lots of fallow does not serve the security role of ensuring there are lots of farmers. And politically, could Congress really sustain vast acreages under a paid fallow scheme? If we didn't eat so much meat we might be able to cut our acreages by 30%, we can't fallow 30% and pay for it. On the other hand, if prairie grass can be a source for cellulosic biofuels, you get "fallow" with perennial crops that can also get harvested each year or so, earn the farmer some income, this would be terrific. Then in a pinch some of these prairies could be plowed under and planted. I like that scenario.

  2. I follow this and think it is interesting and important. Just have a slightly different way of doing it.

    Instead of a fallow system or putting excess grains into ethanol, I would advocate a livestock-pasture system. What this does is build the topsoil so that it requires fewer inputs when converted into an annual grain crop.

    For example, remove from production all the corn and soy acreage that goes to biofuels, replace with pasture and run animals on it. That way we still have this buffer, and still have meat, and could potentially use it if really needed. Do this in a rotation with pasture lasting 5-10 years or so.

  3. Jason's comment has prompted me to suggest two previous posts here on farming that would be valuable for preparing for a changed future. Jason has one of the best voices of wisdom on this subject in this country today as does the other person, Fred Kirschenmann, who luckily, has been invited to the White House in the past. Some day I expect Jason to have a similar status. Both of these voices advocate the importance of including livestock in smart sustainable farm operations. Add Joel Salatin to that list, too.

    Here are the posts: A Socially Conscious Way to Invest in Farmland: An Interview with Dr. Jason Bradford about Farmland LP and Fred Kirschenmann Speaks on the 4 Major Threats to Industrialized Agriculture: Energy Constraints, Water, Climate Change, and Ecological Degradation.

    Next, I will bring up a couple more points for Eric. Food storage is difficult and expensive and requires a great deal of infrastructure. My recent post, Corrugated Steel Grain Storage Bins: A Grain Storage Trend with Momentum points to the fact that storage is growing fairly rapidly in this country for a variety of reasons, one of them ethanol. This should be a safety net. But food storage time is limited.

    And unless you are speaking of a time in which the entire world has lost its food growing and export capacity, if the U.S. gets hit by an extended and severe drought couldn't it import? We have the rest of N. America and Latin America plus this is a big country so I would expect that every food growing region wouldn't be a total wipe-out.

    A key fact here is that there is massive overproduction of food in our breadbasket nation at the present time for our own population and there is a very great amount of slack in the system when you throw in the potential to change our diets, too.

    Last, I see personal and local food growing a key responsibility in feeding ourselves. If you want to safeguard against this idea, do as the Mormans and store a year's worth of your own food. And each city, by surrounding itself with small farms can try to meet regional food security.