Friday, March 14, 2008

Wheat Goes In the Handbasket!

Boy, it's just a doom-sayer's holiday out there these days.  Pick your imminent global disaster, there's evidence galore.

Increasingly, it's hard to find any "expert" who is not whispering "I think it's going to get worse, before it gets better..." - on any subject.

The cock-eyed optimists are being reduced to "well, but it WILL get better, one of these years, I just know it."  Sounds kind of lame, though, at the moment.

Ha.  You know what I just noticed??  Guess what the acronym for "cock-eyed optimist" turns out to be?!

There has to be some cosmic irony intended there!

So that's why the CEO's get the big bucks!!

One of my personal favorite pending disasters at the moment is... wheat.  Things are not looking good, if you really depend on it.  (Another fave is the price of diesel; but that's another day.)

Prices are up all over the world; very painfully, if you're poor, or feeding the poor.

The drought in Australia has hurt bigtime.

And, a story that has not really hit all the headlines yet- a major disease is hitting wheat; and this time, the researchers are not ready.

For a hundred years, at least, scientists, policy types, philosophers, and even regular people have been warning that it's really a bad idea for the world to depend so heavily on so few crops.  Wheat, rice, and maize account for far too much of far too many peoples' basic diets.

We knew.  We know.  Here we are, anyway.

To my amazement, the BBC even put up a serious article on "Growing your own wheat" last week.

I'm afraid most of this- like most of ALL news these days- is just good for more headshaking.

What can we do about it?  See?  You're shaking your head, aren't you.  

Me too.

I hope you like rye.

Maybe somebody will finally be able to sell all that lovely amaranth.


Knit2dye4 said...

I have been very worried about this issue of wheat shortages also. To make matters worse for me personally, Alaska is at the very far end of a long supply chain, and wheat does not grow well here. I have been stocking up on flour, and am really glad that at least oats, barley, and potatoes grow well here.


helwen said...

We're talking about trying to grow some grains this year (small group of people, and just for our personal consumption). Some debate, but I think we'll end up trying to grow wheat and oats. Wheat is just starting to come back to western MA, with a few farms growing wheat, spelt, and rye for specific bakeries.

But, we'll also be growing potatoes again this year -- tried it out last year and it was pretty easy, so going for the gusto this year. Best not to put only one type of starch in the basket...

We also plan on building a pedal-powered thresher, and we already have a grain mill.

Heather G

Marnie said...

i love we'll be fine, right?.....riiiight....actually, we did order some amaranth and quinoa seeds, just for "fun" in our city garden...we'll see how it goes....

arduous said...

Things getting worse seems so bad for many many reasons. I'm reading "Breakthrough" right now and they make a convincing case that historically speaking things have to get better before they get better. They base this on Maslow's hierarchy of needs: basically when things are tough, people are more selfish and focused on their immediate, personal needs. When things are going better, people are more willing to foucs outward and to consider the greater good. So, really, if we want to see greater better social change made, we need to be coming from a place of heightened prosperity as opposed to recession. But it doesn't look like things are going to get better so they can get better....

green with a gun said...

We grow far more grain than we need to feed the world, so we can afford a big drop in production.

Around 2,100 million tonnes is produced each year. This is 318kg per person on the planet, enough for 3,050kcal and 87g of protein per person daily, which is about 50% more than the average adult doing moderate physical work needs.

But we don't eat it all directly. 750Mt grain goes to livestock and about 350Mt to biofuels.

And so rather than 318kg grain each, we get then 152kg grain, 43kg meat and 102kg milk products per person annually. This makes 2,150kcal and 66g protein for every person daily. About 7.5% more calories and 120% more protein than needed.

But the world also produces about 160kg of vegetables, 80kg of fruit, 25kg of sugar and 25kg of vegetable oils per person annually. These adds another 1,490kcal, 5g or so of protein, and lots of vitamins and minerals.

In all, 3,640kcal and 71g of protein daily.

Thus, the world provides already about 80% more food than is needed; we could feed 12 billion people without increasing food production, or taking any grain from biofuels or livestock.

The problem is distribution; there are 1,000 million overweight people in the West, and 800 million suffering from hunger in the Third World; these numbers are probably not a wild coincidence.

In the West, we also throw away around 25% of our food.

Were one of the major crops to lose in production, we could simply divert grain away from livestock and biofuels, or even waste less.

For example, wheat production is about 630Mt annually. Let's imagine the deadly fungus wipes out 90% of it - it's an absurd and impossible figure, but let's imagine it anyway.

If that happens, and all the loss is taken from grain eaten directly, total daily food comes to 2,816kcal and 50g protein daily. Still much more than enough.

If the grain is taken from livestock instead, we get 3,155kcal and 51g protein daily.

And so on. Nobody is going hungry because there's not enough food in the world to feed them. They go hungry because we choose for them to go hungry, because we waste a quarter of our food, and because they live in countries with civil wars and/or despotic regimes.

Even if 90% of the world's wheat crop is destroyed this year - which is not likely - there's still more than enough to feed everyone if we choose to, and if their country does not deliberately starve them by civil war and despotism.

The Barber Bunch said...

Just surfin' the blogs and stopped by for a visit. Just wanted to say Hi!

Great Blog!


Greenpa said...

Green with a mortar- yep. Your numbers and relationships are 90% correct- an absurd and impossible number, but ... :-)

I don't know if I've said it in this blog before (don't think so) but the way I usually put it is:

Nobody on the planet starves because the world doesn't have enough food. People starve- because the world is mean.

And you can quote me. Lots of individual humans are very tender hearted- but our governmental actions, and inactions- speak clearly. We don't care.

Three bits I didn't quite get from your very good summary-

1). It's not only distribution that is horrifically bad- it's STORAGE. Most of "world hunger" is in the tropics, and a major contributor is spoilage due to inadequate storage capability. Some years back, according to FAO stats, Nigeria (I think it was) and some of its neighbors had 80% of their maize crop- rot, after harvest. Heavy rains.

2). You're totally correct about how much food the world produces, and how it should be plenty for twice the people we have now. In fact, I'd bet there's more food produced, and more waste, than you point out here.

But this changes nothing for the people who are hungry, now. Nobody is going to change anything that matters to them- except to raise the price of the bits already filtering down.

Any significant drop in the world wheat crop will mean- a rise in the price of cake and baguettes. Which the wealthy will pay without noticing. So the amount of wheat available to the poor will- drop even further. "So, let them eat barley!" some will say- except the roads aren't there- nor fuel for trucks- etc.

Some people WILL starve because of the crisis in wheat, because of who and where they are.

3). So, we know all this; then governments, NGO's, and academics clearly are all working hard on fixing roads and storage capabilities, right? When so much food is just lost, wasted, every year?

Wrong. Gosh, there just doesn't seem to be any MONEY in it for investors, if you put in roads that let people move food during the flood season; or build a grain storage facility that actually keeps rats out. And no big banquets and prestigious prizes for "300 secure storage facilities built!"

You get headlines and money from "Peanuts genetically engineered to provide vitamin A! Tropical blindess cured at last!" - while the oil palms in the background - with 1000x as much vitamin A in the raw oil- are harvested for candy and frosting, soap and biodiesel in the first world.

We don't need to stamp out world hunger. We need to stamp out world apathy and ignorance.