Friday, April 24, 2009

Sharon Astyk nails it: What hunger in China means for Salem

Sharon Astyk, author of the excellent "Depletion and Abundance" and the upcoming "A Nation of Farmers" has such a good piece with such importance for Salem that I'm going to shamelessly reprint it too:

Lester Brown has a lead article in _Scientific American_ this month, on the potential unrest caused by growing food insecurity worldwide. The article is appropriately dark about the potential problems in feeding ourselves, and he asks whether it is possible that widespread food insecurity could “bring down civilization” by destroying functioning nation states from the inside. It is a fascinating article, and well worth a read.

What struck me about it was one rather brief point that Brown makes - along with his discussions of soil loss, falling water tables, climate change and population, he very briefly debunks what I think is a prevailing idea - that because the US is a major producer, if things get tough, we’ll simply stop exporting grain. He writes:

“No country is immune to the effects of tightening food supplies, not even the U.S., the world’s breadbasket. If China turns to the world market for massive quantities of grain, as it has recently done for soybeans, it will have to buy from the U.S. For U.S. consumers, that would mean competing for the U.S. grain harvest with 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes—a nightmare scenario. In such circumstances, it would be tempting for the U.S. to restrict exports, as it did, for instance, with grain and soybeans in the 1970s when domestic prices soared. But that is not an option with China. Chinese investors now hold well over a trillion U.S. dollars, and they have often been the leading international buyers of U.S. Treasury securities issued to finance the fiscal deficit. Like it or not, U.S. consumers will share their grain with Chinese consumers, no matter how high food prices rise.”

This, I think is an important point, and one that becomes more acute as we become more dependent on buyers for our Treasuries - and we are presently becoming more and more dependent, not less and less. As Bloomberg reported a few days ago, lost tax revenue in the US means that we need to sell dramatically more Treasuries, even as nations have indicated they are inclined to pull back.

Brown predicted this - in _Depletion and Abundance_ I quoted Brown’s Plan B 2.0 (he’s up to 3.0, and I admit, I wish he’d change book titles ;-)) on just this subject:

The first big test of the international community’s capacity to manage scarcity may come with oil or it could come with grain. If the latter is teh case, this could occur when China - whose grain harvest fell by 34 million tons or 9 percent between 1998 and 2005 - turns to the world market for massive imports of 30 million, 50 million or even 100 million tons of grain per year. Demand on this scale could quickly overwhelm world grain markets. When this happens, China will have to look to the United States which controls [over 40 percent of] the world’s grain exports…some 200 million tons.”

Brown has written an entire book on the subject, _Who Shall Feed China_ as well.

Last week, China Daily and other Chinese papers reported that China has begun a national audit of its grain supplies due to recent speculation that grain reserves have been exaggerated, and due to expressed concern that it may not be able to weather an extended drought. China now imports about 5% of its national grain demand, but because it depends on irrigation for 80% of its grain production, that figure is expected to rise, as soybean imports have already risen.

This is important, not to scapegoat China (I’m always a little wary of the “bad China - poor us” narrative), but to realize that while many peak oil and climate change activists fear an absolute scarcity of food - periods where food is simply not on the shelves - they perhaps should be at least as concerned with dramatic rises in food prices, and an increasing number of everyday Americans who go hungry. This is already the case, of course. But a poor to seriously crappy economy, combined with rising food prices is a recipe for real and serious trouble for all of us.

I think a lot of people express skepticism about the idea that the US, the world’s breadbasket, will have bare shelves. And while I think that is technically possible, it is far more likely that, as in most places with deep endemic hunger, the US will likely have full shelves - and more and more people peering in at them, unable to purchase food.

This is why we need, at every level, from family farms to family gardens, a renewed focus on food security, increased access to food in its cheapest form (the seed), local food trade, a nation of people who can eat grain, rather than processed foods, and a nation of farmers.


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