Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

Henry Kissinger

‘Bitter waters’ ahead

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, preparing him for a terrible duty that he must face, Dr. Van Helsing tells Jonathan Harker, “We must pass through the bitter waters before we reach the sweet.” So it shall be for all of us; for before we can restore a wholesome global economy, many millions, perhaps billions, of us will suffer and die. And the longer we wait, the worse it will be.

A malnourished child eats refuse from the sidewalk

Starving on the streets: Sights like this are expected to become increasingly prevalent.
[ Image Source ]

I dearly wish I could disbelieve this article. I tried to discredit it as I read it. I tried parsing and dissecting each of its 20 points, searching for cause to doubt. I cross-examined each of its sources, hoping to find something from PrisonPlanet or NaturalNews, so I could feel the comfort of dismissing it as so much sensationalism. But I couldn’t. All the observations, with the possible exception of the speculation that much of northern Japan is uninhabitable, are supported not only by the articles cited, but others I’ve seen elsewhere.

There is little we as individuals can do to help ourselves and others, although this article, which recommends growing as much as possible of one’s own produce, offers a good start. However, gardening is necessarily a limited solution: It’s a choice available only to some, usually those well off enough not to be in immediate danger, and it fails to supply other essential elements of a nutritious diet.

Worse, the present article is, if anything, too optimistic: It says of the prospective food crisis, “It isn’t going to happen today, and it probably isn’t going to happen tomorrow....” But this is already old news. In actuality, here in the United States, the recent increase in oil prices has already led to growing food scarcities and skyrocketing prices, particularly in the produce aisle, where falling quality has compounded the problem. Meanwhile, wholesome foods — as distinguished from fast food and packaged “junk food” — are already unaffordable if not unavailable to many poor Americans, especially in the so-called “food deserts” in our inner cities, where supermarkets are scarce, smaller on average, and charge more than their suburban counterparts; all of this will only be exacerbated as availability declines and greedy retailers gouge.

World grain prices, 2000-2008

World grain prices, 2000-2008.
[ Image Source ]

Anecdotally, I can affirm what the news confirms: The price of staples essential to subsistence — rice, wheat, corn and products made from them — is climbing and now approaches escape velocity. The chart above depicts the price increases from 2000 to 2008 on wheat and rice; had it been updated to the present, it would have shown a slight fall in prices from 2008-2010, followed by another spike in 2010-11. I never imagined I’d see a time when 28 ounces of brown rice cost nearly three dollars or a pound of pasta went for over two dollars.

All of this gets worse over time, because virtually every processed food uses these staple grains in various forms; meanwhile, some of the best of our grain now ends up in the fuel tanks of the comparatively well-heeled. Thus, all food prices are affected by the rising cost of grain. But we in the U.S. are more fortunate than many: At least we haven’t had food riots yet.

The only cause for hope is this: We can learn to do better, especially when we have to.

As I said, we can't change much as individuals. These conditions demand cooperative efforts, in which people will form communities at the local scale, remaining linked to other communities via the internet, and together produce their own full range of foods, from produce and grains to meats, herbs and spices.

It’s too late for preventative medicine. Much harm has already occurred, and more lies ahead. But we can begin to treat the disease of pathological economics that underlies all of these scarcities, and perhaps one day effect a cure for those who survive it.

Sweeter waters may lie ahead. But first we must reach them.

Originally published as a review of a SignsOfTheTimes ( article on developing global food shortages.

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