I had a chat the other day with Farmer Jerry, who had just returned from a conference in Kona related to his position on the state Board of Agriculture.
He was troubled, as he often is, over the condition of agriculture in the Islands, telling of how coffee farmers are dealing with a devastating pest known as the coffee borer, and “the poor bee guys,” already ravaged by the varroa mite, are now contending with a beetle that attacks the hives.
It struck me, as we talked, that just as ecosystems weaken and collapse as integral components are compromised, undermined, outright destroyed, a similar process can occur with human systems, and we’re seeing that now with agriculture, especially in Hawaii.
“You’re absolutely right,” replied Farmer Jerry, ticking off a few of the many factors now working to destabilize food production and distribution: invasive species and pests; escalating land prices; farmers dying off; climate change; rising oil prices.
And to that I might add the use of food crops and valuable farmlands for biofuel. According to a Reuters article:
Ethanol makers are expected to consume a record 5 billion bushels of corn this year, or some 36 percent of the harvest.
The same article went on to report this sobering news:
Huge U.S. corn and soybean plantings this spring will likely fail to refill razor-thin stocks enough to quell the surge in grain prices, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Thursday.
In updated forecasts for the world's biggest crop exporter, the USDA warned that it could take several years to restore inventories to comfortable levels.
The U.S. government's forecasts are likely to fuel more concern globally that high prices could persist far longer than they did in 2008 when they hit record highs, as supplies remain too thin to cope with any further weather disasters.
Despite criticism that using food for fuel was driving up prices and contributing to thin stockpiles, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the conference the government had no intention of scaling back on ethanol.
"There is no reason for us to take the foot off the gas," Vilsack told the conference. "This is a great opportunity for us because we can do it all, make no mistake about it."
Can we? Even though it means plunging tens of millions of people into extreme poverty and contributing to food riots in nations like Egypt and Algeria?
Can we? Even though other highly populated countries are becoming increasingly dependent on our exports?
Can we? Even though U.S. food prices are forecast to rise 3.5 percent this year -- nearly double the overall inflation rate?
Can we? Even though, as some analysts warn, a bad crop in the States could cause it all to come tumbling down?
Can we even continue to indefinitely do some of it, much less all, when so many of the components that comprise the “agricultural ecosystem” are weakening, failing?
As a Bloomberg Businessweek article noted:
Whether the world tips into agricultural catastrophe this year depends on the fate of the wheat on the North China Plain. "You need two perfect harvests through the summer of 2012 to get stockpiles back to an acceptable level," says Jason Lejonvarn, a commodities strategist at Hermes Fund Managers in London. Unless sufficient moisture reaches the parched seedlings, a net exporter of wheat could become a net importer of wheat, further stressing world markets. Short of that, a Chinese ban on wheat exports would also send prices higher, meaning that global grain shortages—once thought to be a disaster of the past—could return. Even American commodities buyers are feeling the pinch. "There is not one crop you can point to that is without supply problems," says Steve Nicholson, a commodity procurement specialist for International Food Products in St. Louis. "Production is not keeping up with demand."
The article goes on to report that while some Midwest American farmers and commodities speculators have benefited from the food crisis (and the ethanol scam), most Americans have not:
A record 43.6 million people in the U.S.—more than one of every eight—received food stamps in November, as the jobless rate stayed near a 27-year high, the USDA reported. In most parts of the developing world, there is no comparable safety net, which is why national leaders and nongovernment organizations alike are scrambling to devise solutions before the worst comes to pass.
And what will become of the U.S. safety net, which is already tattering with the economy still sluggish and Obama cutting and freezing spending for social programs?
The Bloomberg article ends with a question that can only be characterized as deeply troubling, given the late hour and the continuing state of denial among so many political leaders, including the Republicans controlling Congress:
Civilization has faced down pandemics and world wars—and has emerged stronger for having met the test. The current series of droughts and floods are not simply wreaking havoc on food supplies. They're harbingers of life in a hotter and more chaotic climate. Could hunger, and the threat to power that accompanies it, be what finally forces political leaders to act?