Saturday, April 16, 2011

Food for Thought: Five Signs That Backyard Gardening Might Soon Be a Survival Skill

1. Rising produce prices. The grass has ’riz and so has the price of most foods, which is particularly devastating just now when so many Americans are unemployed, underemployed, retired or retiring, or on declining or fixed incomes. In some American towns, and not just impoverished backwaters, as many as 30 percent of residents can’t afford to feed themselves and their families sufficiently, let alone nutritiously. Here in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina where I live, it’s 25 percent.

Across the country, one out of six of the elderly suffers from malnutrition and hunger. And the number of children served one or two of their heartiest, healthiest meals by their schools grows annually as the number of them living at poverty levels tops 20 percent. Thirty-seven million Americans rely on food banks that now routinely sport half-empty shelves and report near-empty bank accounts.

In some cases this round of price hikes on everything from cereal and steak to fresh veggies and bread—and even the flour that can usually be bought cheaply to make it— will be temporary. But over the long term, the systems that have provided most Americans with a diversity, quantity, and quality of foods envied by the rest of the world are not going to be as reliable as they were.

2. Peak oil. Even oil company CEOs agree that now or in the next two or three years the world will have passed the peak of cheap, easy oil. What difference does that make? For one thing, there is no replacement for oil that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it. Cheap, abundant food on the shelves of grocery and big box stores and food banks, on our tables, and in our bellies depends on cheap, abundant oil for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and to power farm machinery and transport food from fields to processors and packagers and then to purveyors and consumers, around the world.

Over the next decade or three, Americans can expect food to get progressively more expensive and some foods, especially fresh vegetables and fruits, to become less available in stores.

3. Peak soil and space. Arable land—land suited to farming—is at a premium everywhere in the world. Every year farmers lose thousands of acres of arable land to urban and suburban sprawl and more tons of topsoil than they produce of grain and other field crops to attrition. Half the Earth’s original trove of topsoil, like that which once permitted the American Midwest to feed the world, has been lost to wind and erosion. Millions of years in the making, it has been depleted and degraded by industrialized agriculture in only a couple of centuries.

China’s soils ride easterly winds across the Pacific to settle out on cars and rooftops in California. While the American Bread Basket’s soils are building deltas and dead zones at the mouth of the Mississippi. Adding insult to injury, soils that have been farmed using petroleum-based synthetics—toxic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—and heavy equipment are themselves virtually dead and will not be able to produce as much as they have, with or without fossil-fuel inputs.

4. Climate instability. Bad—uncongenial—weather has devastated grain crops in the upper Midwest, Florida, Mexico, Russia, China, parts of Africa, and elsewhere. Many climate scientists believe we’ve passed the equivalent of the peak of friendly and familiar weather as we have the peak in easy, cheap oil and abundant healthy soil. And while increasing heat will bedevil harvests, intense cold, downpours, and flooding and drought will make farming an increasingly hellish occupation.

The transitional climate will be unpredictable from season to season and will produce more extremes of weather and weather disasters, which means farmers will not be able to assume much about growing seasons, rainfall patterns, and getting crops through to harvest. If the past is precedent, the transition from the climate we’ve been used to for 10,000 years to whatever’s next could take decades, centuries, or even millennia.

When a whole nation’s or region’s staple grain crops are lost, everything down the line from the crop itself becomes more expensive, from meat to every kind of processed food (i.e., the food Americans shop for as if supermarkets were actually where food comes from).

5. Persistent unemployment and economic instability. No pundits, talking-heads, or economic analysts deny there are rough economic times ahead. Even many of the cautious among them acknowledge that we may be looking at five or six years of high unemployment, and many of the lost jobs won’t be coming back. The less cautious, who have been watching this crisis build for decades—I count myself as one of these—predict the collapse of the whole fossil-fuel, funny-money, global economic system.

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About the Author:
A memoirist, magazine and book editor, and freelance writer, Ellen LaConte has been published in numerous magazines and trade journals on subjects ranging from organic gardening and alternative technologies to the evolution of consciousness, democracy theory, and complex systems. After three decades of homesteading in Connecticut and Maine, she gardens now on a half-acre in the Yadkin River watershed of the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina.

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