How close could the U.S. come to severe food shortages?
By Christopher McCollum
Amid record high food prices, a stronger case than ever before must be made for American self-sufficiency. Earlier in the week, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization reported that food prices in December, 2010 rose 4.2%, up to the highest prices seen since the organization began keeping track in 1990. While rice remained stable (surely a great comfort to nearly half the world’s population who share rice is a primary dietary staple), sugar prices have risen to the highest prices they’ve seen in 30 years. Meanwhile, the world’s other most important food commodity, wheat, has seen poor harvests around the world lead to higher than average prices as well; this is compounded by two of the biggest wheat producers in the world, Russia and Ukraine, imposing export restrictions on the commodity. In the face of shortages, wheat distributors in Africa and the Middle East have begun to hoard supplies, according to a CNN report.
On the heels of this report from the UN organization, a crisis has begun to unfold in North Africa, with protests and riots taking place across Algeria and neighboring Tunisia regarding the skyrocketing prices of these dietary staples. Two people have been reported dead, with 300 injured in Algeria, and at least four more dead in Tunisia. The riots have led to police crackdowns and the cancellation of soccer matches in Algeria, to keep large social gatherings to a minimum.
While the rising prices have not equated to a food shortage yet, it serves as a reminder of how vulnerable countries can become under the threat of starvation; even America. U.S. wheat stocks have dropped significantly since 2001, and according to a USDA estimate, this number is “the lowest since World War II.” USA Today reported in 2008 that this equates to being “about a 35-day supply of wheat” should a sudden disaster limit food supplies on-hand; similarly, an estimate by the American Bakers Association stated that the U.S. “has a 24-day supply of wheat compared with the previous three-month level” once kept in storage (today, we’re currently sitting on about 50 million bushels). This is a stark contrast to the massive surplus that existed in the 1980′s under Ronald Reagan’s administration, disposed of under the oversight of Reagan’s Agriculture secretary, John Block. Critics had claimed it was too expensive to maintain, and that having such large quantities on hand could even be counter-productive in ensuring competitive market prices. Once this surplus was eliminated, there was a time when food supply in the US amounted essentially to what was in household pantries and grocery stores. Today, America’s reserve food supply is still at an alarmingly low level.
Additionally, farmland continues to recede beneath urban sprawl and developments each year, resulting in a decrease of 32M acres of farmland occurred between 1997 to 2007 alone. Through the late 90′s, California, America’s largest agricultural state, hemorrhaged almost half a million acres of farmland to other developments. According to Farmland.org, if the current trend continues, another 2 million acres of fertile California farmland will be paved over by 2050. Combine that with skyrocketing population figures that will inevitably quicken the process, and it spells a future potential for crisis that cannot be taken lightly.
Despite the world being much smaller than it was prior to the Silicon Valley revolution, America is far more vulnerable to food shortages than ever before. Just because Russia and Ukraine are two of the biggest wheat producers in the world, doesn’t mean that healthy political relationships will be maintained over the years, as seen by the lack of favorable treatment given to the U.S. regarding recent export restrictions. When it comes to food, history has shown that it only takes a couple of days to send civilized people into absolute barbaric states of anarchy, resulting in theft, murder, genocide, and even cannibalism. It is an absolute necessity that we, as a nation, become as self-sufficient as possible, so that the whims of foreign politicians do not lead to little Johnny and Cindy suffering the fates of so many other children in third world nations.
While farmers around the country should crank up production to build a reserve supply of grain in their silos for hard times, it also needs to fall to urban and suburban individuals to begin planting and maintaining modern day “victory gardens,” just as we did during the World Wars. The Greeks maintained that a full acre of farmland would feed a soldier for a year, but with modern day techniques, the land required is far smaller, with large estimates being around 0.75 acres, and small estimates being at a mere 7,500 square feet, providing harvests are full and no food is given to waste. This number relates to traditional soil planting methods, however. If we were to assume instead that everyone might engage in hydroponic and aeroponic gardening, we would see the space requirements plummet to comically low numbers. Depending on the hydroponic setup, an area of 48 square feet can grow anywhere from 50 to 70 tomato or pepper plants, and per hydroponic-acre yields are more than 100% their soil counterparts. It could then be reasonably assumed, that with 100-200% greater production, it cuts the necessary space in half that is required to feed an adult for one year. Sturdy, productive hydroponic operations can be built at home at low cost, with most of the expense found in the water pumps required to keep the nutrient soup moving through the root systems 24 hours a day.
Prior to the next growing season, I plan to build my own small hydroponic system, which I estimate will take up the space of a parked car in my backyard, and with an estimated (and optimistic) yield of four bushels of tomatoes. This setup will cost about $300, including the solar powered water pumps, seeds, and nutrients required to grow the plants. While sounding relatively expensive, the construction of the garden is where the bulk of the cost is. The first year of tomatoes will come in at just over a dollar a pound, in expenses. However, since the garden only needs to be built once, the only expenses in following years will be buying seeds and nutrients, which should bring the total cost of tomato harvests to an estimated $0.15 to $0.30 per pound. Granted, while this may not provide the full diet for an adult male, it will be enough self-sustenance to allow investment into larger, more varied gardening schemes.
Now is the time for us all to take steps toward becoming more self-sustaining using methods such as what I’ve outlined above. Food prices are soaring across the board, and potential shortages linger on the horizon, while deadly riots are already taking place in foreign nations. Rather than allowing similar things to happen here at home, it is better to look ahead and be prepared, rather than to realize once it’s too late that something should have been done while we had a chance.
Image by Salvadonica Borgo del Chianti via Flickr.