Anyone worried about global food production?

Leslie Carlson

The New York Times has an ominous story on its front page today about the effect of extreme weather on food crops in the U.S. Here in Oregon, the cherry harvest has been reduced by half and will be "the latest I can remember" according to one farmer, all attributed to unseasonably cold weather.

I'm anxious to see what other Oregon crops are late or vastly reduced due to unseasonable cold. I know my garden doesn't know what to do--it's suffered first through 98 degrees in May and now a June that feels more like March.

But hey, who said climate volatility was going to be easy?

Unfortunately, this is very bad news for the consumer. Food prices may match oil prices in a few months if harvests on a worldwide basis don't improve. To me, it looks like the Age of Scarcity may have begun.

  • Brian (unverified)

    "Anyone worried about global food production?"

    It's a concern, though Ethanol madness worries me far more than La Nina.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Climate volatility is indeed predicted to increase, accompanying the overall climate warming trend. Remember, weather (what's going on today) is different than climate (what's going on in an average, long term fashion).

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Climate volatility is indeed predicted to increase, accompanying the overall climate warming trend. Remember, weather (what's going on today) is different than climate (what's going on in an average, long term fashion).

  • Rose Wilde (unverified)

    This totally explains the bizarre behavior of our ornamental cherries in the front yard. We're relatively new at the whole "land" thing, so trees are a mystery -- but ours look like someone gave them an upside-down mullet -- leafy on top and bald on the bottom. Not so ornamental...

    But seriously, agriculture is a major part of Oregon's economy, so we should be concerned about this -- didn't we all learn to love orchards and farmland on the M49 campaign (or at least, talk about it in a political context)?

  • anon (unverified)

    This isn't anything new. We had an April showstorm in 1994 after all the trees had budded out. Weather is unpredictable. Always has been.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    A few years back, I saw one study or projection that showed that one area that would "benefit" from global warming would be Central Oregon. Here in Prineville we average 11 inches of rain a year - or we used to. I don't know what the official rainfall total has been the last couple of years, but it seems higher as the plants on my property need less irrigation to survive.

    So, I've planted a 400 s.f. vegetable garden. In this area the general advice is to not plant outdoors until Memorial Day, which I did. But since then it has been cold (but not freezing) and wet. Strawberries are doing great, tomato great - but we will see on the rest. It is a big experiment.

    I was in Wisconsin visiting my wife's family about 4 years back. They grow a lot of corn there, but don't irrigate, depending upon water from the sky. The corn corp that year was pitiful. There wasn't enough water, so it was short and dry.

    I expect that parts of our country will get more water, parts less, and with global warming some big adjustments will be necessary.

    Our rivers in Oregon keep up summer and fall flows based upon mountain snow melts and the recharge to the ground water from this. As our mountain snows receed, how will we adapt? Should we be planning to built dams on the sides of the Cascade Mountains to hold back water that would have been snow, but its now too warm - and then release that water in the summer? There is no road map for us, and we certainly can't look back at the last 500 years of "natural" history to guide us forward. Since the world is becoming "unnatural" should we be taking proactive steps to deal with the more local affects? Sure, the global stuff about green house gases are very important, but if that is somewhat a lost battle, and the oceans are going to rise 10 feet or 20 feet, shouldn't we be building up the sea wall in downtown Portland now? Shouldn't we be planning alternative water use patterns now? Shouldn't we put at the least a building moritorium on all areas lower than 20 feet above the current sea level? Shouldn't we inventory all public buildings that would be affected by a rise in the sea level, such as schools, fire halls, police stations, etc.? I think the schools in places like Tillamook, Rockaway, etc. are lower than 20 feet above the current high tide line.

    But for now, I've planted vegetables.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    May we should bring back ration stamps or points for food and A-cards for gas. it seemed to work well during WW II - only this time we woule use it for survival.

  • Jonathan Radmacher (unverified)

    I am curious about a bigger question regarding whether you can really have a debate about climate change by talking about anecdotes. The big problem with anecdotes, particularly with regard to Portland's typically unpredictable weather, is that while we can point to things and say "aha, climate change/climate volatility," someone else can point to a big snowstorm, a huge snowpack, or a cool summer and equally say "see, no problem." Those who want to prove something with anecdotes get hoisted on their own pitard.

    But with that puzzlement on the table, is everyone else having an uncooperative garden?

  • Tony (unverified)

    Why is it that we're still allowing subsidies to corporate agribusiness, and disagvantaging the people of the developing world?? We need to end these subsidies, allow depeloping nations to farm their land, and everyone will be better off. Not to mention, Monsanto and others like them need to HEAVILY fined for their seed policies, and that will over-whelmingly help these problems.

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    I am curious about a bigger question regarding whether you can really have a debate about climate change by talking about anecdotes.

    I agree. But the article in the Times is about worldwide crop failures: too much rain in the Midwest, too little water in Australia, torrential rain in China. In the past, the failure of a crop in one region could be made up by harvests elsewhere. Today, it seems global weather patterns are changing from the relative stability of the last 10,000 years. And if it continues, this spells real trouble for our ability to feed 6 billion people...and counting.

  • Admiral Naismith (unverified)

    It's good to be in a region with plenty of water and good farming soil. I plan on eating mostly Oregon-grown/raised food for the foreseeable future, and pity those who live where they have to have most of their food transported from someplace else.

    Give some thought to the idea that, no matter how bad food gets in Oregon, it's probably a lot, lot worse in many parts of the country. And don't forget to thank the farmers in your area.

  • davidg (unverified)

    Virtually every year I have been alive (50+), the national media hypes some major expected crop losses due to weather. The stories always strongly hint that civilization itself may soon be a casualty.

    Take these stories with the appropriate grain of salt.

  • MCT (unverified)

    It is rather sad that this year, when garden centers are reporting that veggie start sales are up over 40% (and ornimental plant sales down somewhat)'s going to be a hard year for gardens. Too wet, too cold, too grey. I'm guessing some of the folks are starting vegetable gardens for the first time, probably out of necessity, and they might not get the rich experience and bumper crops that this region's back yards are capable of producing.

    We've been growing a good sized organic garden for many years now, and we know from experience it just doesn't pay to put plants and many types of seeds in the ground until the soil reaches a warm temp. We haven't had it yet, and the long daylight hours are close to going back the other way.

    And to mass production farming, the U.S. must rewrite its agri policies, which helped with the demise of so many family farms. And ain't it just too bad all the small family farms that went under in the 80's & 90's couldn't have made it through to see the demand for locally grown foods, Americans rethinking their diets, and the organic movement? They say there are old farm houses sitting vacant and deteriorating all across the heartland...those that haven't been razed to create more corporate farm land. To me it all just seems ass-backward...America should be growing its own food! And here we are subsidized to a point where one bad growing season can spell a big disaster. I'm about ready to run out and buy a greenhouse.

  • Heirloom Organic Yuppy Food (unverified)

    The small family farms lacked the economy of scales necessary to compete with "Corporate Farms", and the next generation of family farmers moved into the cities to pursue higher incomes. Nine dollar-per-pound organic salad greens and six dollar-a-pound heirloom tomatoes are not a viable model for feeding the middle class (let alone the global poor).

    That said, I would much rather support American Agribusiness than buy apple juice made in China or Brazil.

  • Steve (unverified)

    "Today, it seems global weather patterns are changing from the relative stability of the last 10,000 years. And if it continues, this spells real trouble for our ability to feed 6 billion people...and counting."

    It seems imaginary changing patterns are seeming real.

    Seems to me this is yet another example of the eagerness to attribute things to global warming.

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    Sure makes me wish I could put some plants here in the ground at my apartment. I have some large herbs in pots and some nice strawberries (wild and regular), but the other stuff doesn't do as well in the pots. I had a tomato plant last year, but it turns out the wrong info stick was in the pot when I bought it and it wasn't a container-type tomato plant and it got huge... and never really sprouted anything.

    There's an area in front of my kitchen window, which is blocked from the strong winds by the building jutting out for the bedrooms, that would be perfect for a garden. It's out of the way from where the kids play, doesn't get the heavy runoff from the building, etc.

    I'm going to see if I can talk management into allowing it.

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    Yes, I am worried about global food production. We now have something over 6 billion people on the earth. We are heading toward 8 billion by 2025. 2 billion or more new consumers have left either state-run or subsistence-level agriculture (China, India, former Soviet Union and other emerging economies) over the past few decades to join a global market economy. Growing demand for food, and other commodities, is driving prices up and leaving the global poor with few options. Farmers here and abroad are expanding land under cultivation in response. Global warming will generally shift productive agricultural areas away from the equator. China is buying up arable land around the world. Other agricultural land speculators are grabbing lands in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Unusual weather (typhoon in Burma, drought in Australia) creates shortages, and speculation as to whether the unusual weather is normal variation or part of global warming. People will have to adjust. But who knows how it will all play out. Yes, I am worried, when I think about it. But I did just today have my first local strawberry.

  • Jiang (unverified)

    uhhh...a good deal of the vegetarians in Portland? Where were all the Reed progressives when your building committee bulldozed my WWI Victory Garden to build dorms so the gated-community-raised nouveau riche can avoid the horror of "the other" across the street?

    It would have been nice to have tied this to McMennamin's Edgefield's 97th birthday, last Thursday. Used to be the "county poor farm". Back then folks that were considered totally on the outs were given land and a place to raise their food. You know what you have to earn today to be as well off as the urban destitute of 50 years ago, by that criteria?

    This discussion is pointless if you won't talk about achieving negative population growth. What's a good number? How about the total number of primates, other than humans you've allowed to live. That's about 100,000. Sounds about right. Couldn't even be done consciously. There's more homo domesticus than any vertebrate species higher up the phylogenic scale then a shrew.

    People love to talk about junior Rockefeller's disappearance in the 1960s in New Guinea, but he was doing serious work when he went missing. He had a particularly interesting quote from a former head hunter. Rockefeller asked, "is it true you used to take heads and don't anymore", to which the old chief responded, "yes. and the environment has suffered beyond anything we could ever have imagined".

    Schopenhauer said that we could only hope that by preserving so many blanks some good would come. It hasn't and we will rot in our numbers until balance is restored. We only temporarily survived the black death. We are now terminal with the commodity fetishism that set in among the survivors.

    Relavance? Too many consumers. Be a producer or be consumed.

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    Reed had provided an acre of land (which gardeners expanded to more than 2 acres--check out the historical photos) and water completely gratis for nearly three decades. The land was always owned by the College, regardless of the beliefs of gardeners that they owned the land.

    Reed also maintains nearly 1/3 of its land as a protected natural area (the Reed Canyon) and has informal policies to never build on other protected spaces (the "Great Lawn" and the meadow on the northern edge of campus). The public uses these spaces heavily to walk dogs, have picnics, play athletics, etc.

    The debate over the Reed community garden was long and fierce, and the garden had many defenders. Ultimately, Reed College decided that it's need for more on-campus housing was more important. This was mainly a response to rising student demand for on campus housing and the college's desire to improve on-campus student life.

    The income profile of the Reed undergraduate body is available on their website. Half the students at Reed are on aid, with an average aid package of 26,000 (that's the Reed provided portion). The median family income level of these students (that means HALF are below this number) is 57,908. Of course there are wealthy students at Reed, as at any elite private institution, but to describe the student body as the privileged children of the "nouveau riche" is a severe distortion.

    P.S. I speak for myself, not the College. But full disclaimer, I work for the College.

  • Jack Lansky (unverified)

    Should over weight people be taxed at a higher rate?

    If people want to get Fat - let there bodies go, and just consume as much food as they can stuff in there face - there should be a penalty: in the form of a higher tax. Your tax returns could contain your weight and other governing factors.

    It's time to get serious about this looming crisis and get onboard with a solution.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Global Warming caused climatic shifts will certainly cause dislocation of agriculture, but in many cases that will lead to movement toward the poles and to higher elevations of the areas suited to particular crops. A larger problem, and one that is likely to hit more quickly is the rise in cost of fuel used for farm equipment and transport of agricultural products and the rise in cost of fertilizers with energy intensive production.

    At the same time world population continues to increase and large [and growing] population developing nations are adopting more affluent lifestyles, including increased meat consumption. Meat production is a very inefficient use of crops like corn and soy. Add the subsidies for ethanol production from ag crops to this and we are, indeed, facing food insecurity.

    Bon appetit.

  • randy (unverified)

    I'm not worried about global food production, there is a lot of land that isn't even put to use. Within a one mile radius of my house alone is enough land that would feed hundreds of people if crops were planted. Even at the high prices of food today it is still so low that it doesn't make sense to grow crops on small parcels. The technology advances in the 30 years since I worked on the farm have really been amazing. Most of the farm equipment is now GPS guided for maximum efficiency. The original homestead where I was born now brings in $500,000 a year in income which is about 50x what it used to produce back when I lived there. The cousins that stayed on the farm are now very wealthy. Funny thing is, Congress keeps sending them more money even though they are already rich!

  • Mitche (unverified)

    High density, those of you who live in it can’t plant a garden; you are left to buy food from the market. Those of us that live on a large lot can plant a garden and can our food for the winter. We just planted green beans and we will harvest enough beans to last us through the winter. People don’t can food anymore; I grew up canning food as a kid. We are raising a generation of kids that have never had a garden let alone can that food for the winter. Am I afraid of global food production, YES, we need to drill for more oil until we have an alternative fuel. We don’t have an alternative fuel right now, at least when I go to the gas station to fill up I don’t see a new fuel yet. Electric cars will be great but how many people can afford a 30K car, I can’t. What do we do with the millions of cars in America that are gas only now, nothing! Fuel, we need fuel now Drill, Drill, Drill, until we get an alternative fuel. If we don’t Ya, this world will be in a world of hurt with food. Every day we don’t drill now, we are starving other people around the world

  • randy (unverified)

    Mitche, the environmentalists want people to starve. They would be happy if several billion people all starved since then the carbon footprint would decrease. They of course don't want to starve themselves, nor do they want any rich white people like themselves to starve, they just want other people to starve.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Randy, you have it completely wrong. Environmentalists especially want rich white people to starve, because they are the ones with the largest "carbon footprints." Stone age hunter-gatherers are as close to sustainable as humans can get. If you begin living that way, I think the environmentalists might let you stay alive.

    Remember to look for the fat grubs. They are high in calories.

    Mitche thinks like a jonesing junkie. No matter what makes sense and what does not, he wants more candy, all the candy, right now. Don't get between him and a gas can.

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    Are you really saying that the food problems will be better solved by expanding suburban developments into prime farmland and replacing actual farms with limited partial subsistence gardens? Seems unlikely.

    Actually this argument against urban density coming from market-oriented conservatives (presumably) is hugely funny. It is exactly the specialization of farming and the concentration of populations in urban areas that allows the highly developed divisions of labor on which industrial and consumer capitalism are based, not to mention less economic dimensions of complex civilizations. Go read some Max Weber or Karl Polanyi.

    That division of labor has been enormously successful, probably unsustainably so, in promoting the growth of human global population. This is even true in rural peasant communities, where the ability to meet climatic fluctuations with market compensations enables populations much larger than historical ones to subsist, though with other trade-offs.

    randy, your false and unevidenced motives claims only reveal your complete, bankrupt intellectual dishonesty.

    Regarding Reed, Paul G. is right about the debates. I am not convinced that the community garden was the only place for the dorms in question. For instance some of the partial replacement of smaller, older, and increasingly decrepit dorms with larger ones in a couple of areas of campus might have been taken further. But like the decision 30 years ago to remove the holly grove where the east parking lot is now -- which might now be argued against those of us who were unhappy on native plant grounds -- the debate was serious. "All the Reed progressives" (not clear if you mean just on campus or alumni too) never agree on anything, and certainly not this.

    It should also be noted that the reason why Reed needs to house many more students on campus is that historical patterns of sophomores, juniors and some seniors living off campus in shared houses near the school have become increasingly difficult due to Portland's rising housing prices. Student houses have moved farther and farther afield, with an attendant rise in student driving-commuting. Expanded dorm housing will reduce Reed's contribution to Portland traffic and auto emissions. I don't know how other trade-offs compare -- dorms are pretty dense housing, but then again Reedies occupy houses in numbers more comparable to the families of the 1950s than present low-number families occupying the same spaces.

    It is a pity in terms of other elements of community ecology, in its social as well as bio-physical senses. But then again it also was rather a pity that neither the college nor the gardeners appeared to take up the community garden as a potential focus for social interaction between students, faculty, staff and other Portlanders, at least not after the early years.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis

    Biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% - far more than previously estimated - according to a confidential World Bank report obtained by the Guardian. .... Senior development sources believe the report, completed in April, has not been published to avoid embarrassing President George Bush.

    • The Guardian

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