Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cheap Food

 Linda, over at Practical Parsimony wrote an interesting post, with this link, an era of cheap food may be drawing to a close.  I was going to comment there, like I usually do, but then I realized that I was going to be rambling and long winded, like I usually am, but, you know, more, so maybe I should write here rather than hijack her post. 

The article starts out by telling us that "U.S. grain prices should stay unrelentingly high this year".  It goes on to tell us about the weather and natural disasters that have ruined crops across the world, and the effect it's had on imports and exports.  The bottom line, is that the store houses are low, "dwindled to their lowest level in decades".   So prices will go up, up, up...  because when you only have a little of something, it makes that little bit ever more valuable.

Of course, the article doesn't mention, how low is low? 

I keep a 50 gallon drum of chicken feed.  It holds almost six bags of feed.  I like to keep it full. 
If I have a bad pay week, or a snow storm, or I forget that the feed store switched over to winter hours and won't be open for three days, I don't want to run out of chicken feed.  So when it gets to about half, I know there's only a week's worth of feed left, and I need to go to the feed store.  I consider half to be 'low' in my chicken feed supplies.

I keep three rubbermaid bins for rice in my cold room.
  I am considering adding a fourth.  Each bin holds 3 8kg bags of rice.  That's 72kg of rice.  I replenish my stock piles every 6 to 8 weeks when it goes on sale, for about half of the regular price.  Since we eat a lot of rice ourselves, as well as rice being one of the main ingredients in doggy stew, we use a lot of rice.  In my last two 'cycles', I've run out of rice before the next sale.  So I'm considering adding a fourth bin to store another 24kg, so my stock piles will only be 'low' and not empty when the next sale comes.

In my examples here, I'm only talking about the needs of my family, my critters, my needs.  I am not trying to feed the world.  I'm not even trying to feed us for the whole winter.  I'm merely stockpiling for convenience and price savings.  Still, low has to mean something.  What does it mean when they say the stocks are low?  Will starvation set in before the end of next growing season?  Will we stop exporting to foreign countries and feed ourselves?  How low is low?  Here are some Canadian numbers, of how the 2010 season ended.

"Total stocks of durum wheat rose 42.3% to 2.7 million metric tonnes."  Astronomical numbers.  What does it mean?  How many people will it feed for how long?  And what else do they have to eat?

In the first article, they suggest that raising prices will encourage farmers to plant more.  Really?  Do we have a lot of farmers with a lot of open fields these days?  Just not bothering to go out and plant because they didn't need the cash last year?  Hmmm.  Me thinks not.  There's a lot of info here about subsidies.  They quote "Thomas (Tom) Walkom, National Affairs Writer for The Toronto Star who wrote a lengthy and well researched article on how subsidies support Canadian farmers."

"The international pricing and subsidy system is so out of whack, according to figures compiled by Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, that it costs Canadian consumers and taxpayers more to keep agriculture alive in this country than it would to pay farmers to do nothing. Between 1999 and 2002, for example, Canadian farmers received support, in the form of either artificially inflated prices or direct subsidies, to the tune of $24.9 billion. Yet, over the same period, after all costs were accounted for, these same farmers made only $8.8 billion in net income."

Raising prices might encourage farmers to plant more of one thing, if the farmers saw an increase in pay.   But planting more of one crop will result in less of another.  Is that what we want?  In this age of eat local, shop local, support your local community, 100 mile diets?  Do we want the farmers to grow more corn because it's cheaper to buy Mexican tomatoes?  It's also cheaper to buy Brazilian corn.  What's the point?

Some time in the future we may colonize another planet for agricultural purposes.  We may have huge fields of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, etc, growing there.  We may ship it back to earth in huge space ships.  We may charge the same price as each storage bin is filled across the globe.  We may end world hunger.  That day is not today.

Today we have issues with rising food prices.  Rising fuel prices.  Rising fertilizer prices.  Government subsidies.

Food is not cheap.  It never was.  Cheap food was a myth, brought about by heavy equipment, cheap fossil fuels, and minimal labour.

I was at a pioneer museum once, and someone asked the farm helper threshing the wheat how much he got paid.  It was some mere pittance by today's standards.  Then someone asked what he could buy.  That, of course, seemed like an awful lot.  But the labourer looked at us, and summed it up simply and quickly.  "Why would I pay 35 cents for soap, something I could make myself at home, for free?"  When did we change?  When did we decide it was ok to pay other people instead of doing for ourselves?  And when did we decide that we wouldn't work for what we were willing to pay them?

Seriously.  Cheap food.  Everyone should grow a garden.  Plant some seeds in your backyard, on your balcony, in a pot.  A tiny investment.  Seeds, pot, potting soil.  Track how many hours you spend watering, weeding, tending your crop.  Multiply those hours by minimum wage in your area.  Nearly ten dollars here.  Then subtract the cost of your initial investment.  Then divide it by the amount of produce you grew.

When you make yourself a sandwich with that delicious, locally grown, organic, $50 tomato, relish every sumptuous bite.  Then complain about the rising cost of food at the grocery store.

The problem is, we, as a society, have no idea what food actually costs.  Some of us don't even know where it comes from.  We want more.  We want variety.  We want better quality.  We don't want to pay for it.  We want to keep more of our money to buy cheap plastic Chinese junk- which also isn't cheap.  We want more time to play with our toys, that we buy with our money, that we're not spending on the real cost of food, toys, or leisure activities.  We want more for less.  And we want it now.  But that's not the option.  It never was. 

The options are simple.  Pay for it in cash.  Or pay for it in labour. 

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