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Seven fat cows, seven thin cows: hoarding and storing the seeds of deliverance

Most of us raised in a Biblical religion have some vague memory of the story of Joseph and his brothers, if only from the Donny Osmond musical. Genesis 39-47 will refresh your memory if you are interested in the details.

In the story, Joseph who was sold into Egypt becomes the powerful advisor of Pharoah, who is having bad dreams. In one of the dreams, Pharoah dreams of seven fat cows, devoured by seven starving cows. In the second, seven ripe, healthy sheaves of wheat are devoured by seven shrivelled, dry ones. Joseph correctly predicts that this means,

“Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land…And let Pharoah take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize by taking a fifth part of the land’s produce in the seven years of plenty. Let all the food of those good years that are coming be gathered and let the grian be collected under Pharoah’s authority as food to be stored in cities. Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”

Joseph’s understanding and forethought enable Egyptians, and ultimately his own family to survive the famine, in which “…there was no bread in all the world.

One of the fascinating things about the way that this story is told is the linguistic linking of land and people here - that is, we are told that we should store food so that “the land may not perish.” Of course, this means the people of the land, but it also is a reminder that famine is enormously destructive to the land itself - in the face of famine, land that should not be cultivated is brought into cultivation (we are seeing this already in the US as Crop Protection Land is brought into production and elsewhere as the world’s poor are pressed onto increasingly marginal land), and desperately hungry people will eat whatever they can, including protected animals and plants. Famine isn’t just destructive to the hungry, but to the earth they devastate in the quest for food. In a real sense, the preservation of the people can be the preservation of the land itself.

Whatever anyone can say about Pharoahs ;-), this one seems to have a laudible sense of obligation to his own populace - a sense of obligation that wildly exceeds the leaders of many nations, who have allowed stockpiles to collapse in times of comparative prosperity. Right now world grain reserves are well below what is considered to be a “safe” level to keep populations fed in a time of shortage - and this can be seen by the concern that nations are showing about expanding and safeguarding what reserves they do have in the present crisis. For example, Thailand recently announced it will not consider selling grain from its stockpiles, and the Philippines negotiated a deal with the US and Vietnam to buy a large reserve.

I bring this up not to make you feel like you are back in Sunday school, but because of a Washington Post article I just read, which struck me because while it is perfectly possible that this is an accident, what purports to be a news story about fears of unrest caused by high grain prices, particularly rice, turns out to have what looks like a strong propaganda component, warning people about the danger of stockpiling grain.

Cambodian Finance Minister Keat Chhon last week called for people to be calm. He urged them “not to stock up on foods, which could make the situation even harder.”

Some experts say that building reserves to protect against future shortages only makes the problem worse.

‘Of course, if every country, or individual consumer, acts the same way, the hoarding causes a panic and extreme shortage in markets, leading to rapidly rising prices,” said Peter Timmer, a visiting professor at Stanford University’s program on food security and the environment.

For example, he said, “the newly elected populist government in Thailand did not want consumer prices for rice to go up, so they started talking about export restrictions from Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter. . . . So last Friday, rice prices in Thailand jumped $75 per metric ton. This is the stuff of panics.” “

Now there is some real truth here - if billions of people attempt to build up a food reserve in a time of short supplies, they will make the situation worse, driving up prices and increasing shortages. It is also true, however, that the root cause of these shortages is not people trying to buy now so that they can be sure that they will have rice to eat if the price continues to jump (it went up by 10% on Friday alone). The problem is a combination of climate change, aquifer depletion (especially in China) and biofuels growth - with a heavy emphasis on that last one.

Now the difference between hoarding and stockpiling is this - once you are already in a crisis AND there is a meaningful and rational system for ensuring people have access to food, building up stores can disrupt the existing system and its fairness. This is hoarding, and it is problematic. That is, if there’s just enough rice to around, *and it is going around in a fairly just way* those who are wealthy enough to build up private stocks can disrupt the system, and shouldn’t. That, however is not the case now. First of all, there’s more than enough food to go around, and second of all, justice has not been the major concern.

How do we know this? Well, in 2007, the world produced enough calories to feed everyone in the world half again more calories in grain than they need. With 6.6 billion people, we could feed 1/3 more people, raising the world’s population up to 10 million on present agricultural yields of grain alone - this excludes all vegetables, fruits, grass fed meats and forageable plants. That is, right now we are not experiencing shortages of food in any absolute sense.

This, I think is a deeply important point. When I observe things like this, people usually not that there is no such thing as perfectly fair food distribution, and that is, of course true. It is also true that we are so far away from even a remotely just system of distribution that if we could even approximate a level of concern for the world’s populace that exeeded our concern for our cars, I’d be happy. The reality is that rich people eat three times - they eat some grain. Then they eat meat, fed on enough grain to feed an ordinary person many times over, and then they feed their cars, their pets, the birds and occasionally burn some grain and legumes in their stoves. We entirely lack a system that simply says “humans get the first products of agricultural labor” - that is, that people outrank the cars, dogs, and desire for steak of the average rich world denizen.

Building up supplies in times of comparative prosperity and surplus is not hoarding - it is simply a wise idea, and has been since Pharoah and Joseph were doing it. Keeping a solid reserve of food means that you are not as vulnerable to disruptions and crises. But national stockpiles have been falling steadily for the last decade, with world reserves presently at their lowest since records have been kept. Just as we’re not saving money any more, we are not presently reserving our staple foods for hard times.

Not only is building supplies in times of comparative prosperity morally ok, it is not ethically speaking hoarding if there is no system of equitable distribution. That is, hoarding is the retention of food stores *when things are being distributed fairly* that disrupts an already fair system. Hoarding is not an accurate way to describe the attempt of desperately poor and hungry people to make sure that they are a little less desperately poor and hungry next week, nor is stockpiling an unreasonable response to a crisis in which there is no just system of making sure that the hungry are fed. In that case, when governments and larger institutions are not ensuring fair distribution, it is more than reasonable for people to try and make sure they and theirs are fed. Can this cause problems? Absolutely. Is this root cause of present problems, and should those who inadvertantly exacerbate problems with deeper root causes be held up as responsible? Hell no.

There are some food sources, notably rice, that are experiencing absolute food shortages. But food in general is plentiful - so what’s the problem? Well, Lester Brown announced yesterday that the total amount of US biofuels production could have fed *250 million* people every bite of grain they needed for a year. Think hard about that fact next time you are in the market for some E10. Note, however, that the UN and World Bank, both primary enthusiasts of the world biofuels boom, are arguing that we should give more money to the World Food Program (and we should - they are already desperate and things are only going to get worse), but not that we should stop biofuel production. The one bright spot in what is otherwise a humanitarian and ecological disaster is that Germany seems finally ready to slow the madness - it announced earlier this week that it would remove its own ethanol mandate. Here’s hoping that that’s the first in a trend!

This is, I think, an important point because articles like the one I cited above suggest that a great deal more of the responsibility rests on poor rice consumers than is just. Years of being taught to read closely makes me think that the Washington Post article is more than just a piece of reporting - that is, its level of balance on the subject of stockpiling is low - there is no discussion about, for example, how those who bought rice before the price jump are doing in comparison to others, or why government and world reserves are as low as they are - and whether consumers have the right to compensate for absent state stockpiles of staples. Other than one brief mention of biofuels there is no discussion of rich world hoarding in the form of meat consumption or reduced exports because of biofuels.

The extended discussion of individual hoarding, which takes up nearly half the article, implies that political unrest is primarily caused by governments acknowledging their is a problem, and by people who want to eat trying to continue doing so. Moreover, while I hate to get all conspiracy-theoryish, I cannot help thinking that such an extended discussion of stockpiling in an article that is supposed to be primarily about political unrest due to food prices (and it isn’t like there isn’t anything to write about on that subject) is also beginning to create an American anti-stockpiling narrative.

I’ve had several people email me recently about the ethics of building stockpiles during a time of famine. And I agree, were we really seeing extremely tight supplies of grains, and a system for just distribution, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect to work with it, and limit reserve building right now. But that is not the case - we are presently seeing a vast excess of grain production - mostly going straight into gas tanks and CAFO meat. As economist Amartya Sen has observed, famines are usually about access to food, not absolute supply. Well, for billions of people in the poor world and millions in America can walk into stores filled to overflowing with food - and cannot touch any of it, because they cannot afford it. It is that experience of hunger in a world of plenty that millions of people are experiencing for the first time now.

Moreover, the kind of stockpiling most of the people I’m talking about are doing is not only ok, it is great for the development of local food systems. People are searching out local grain and legume growers, and buying direct, or at worst, buying direct when possible from small scale producers in someone else’s locality. There are, of course, people who can’t do that - but generally speaking, most of my readers with extra money are essentially investing it in local staple food systems, and that is an extremely good use of money.

Even if you are not able to buy local and organic, you should remember that your use of food is the real purpose of the food - you aren’t buying your grains to feed to feedlot cows, or to burn in your car. You are buying food to *EAT* it. Eaters should always have first rights to food. Moreover, those of us who are concerned about the failure of our nations or regions to stockpile food during our fat years have a reason and a responsibility to take on that role for themselves.

The thing is, organizing and keeping grain reserves is one of those “comparatively good uses for government” things. Thus, moves by nations to stabilize or increase their reserves, while a day late or a dollar short, again, are not the root problem - yes, they are driving short term price rises. But they are also responding, not to an imaginary problem, but to the real danger that people will starve to death and die. Market analysts who talk about the problem of people holding back food and creating subsidies are ignoring the fact that nations are responding because a substantial portion of their populace is in danger of death from hunger and hunger related disease.

“To calm increasingly concerned Chinese consumers — for whom prices rose 8.7 percent in February from a year earlier, the biggest increase in 12 years — the government froze the prices of some grains, meat and eggs. Premier Wen Jiabao announced this week that China is largely self-sufficient in rice production and has stockpiled 40 to 50 million tons of rice.

The Chinese government also has run picture after picture in local newspapers of its “strategic reserves” of frozen meat, sacks of grain and barrels of cooking oil.”

Today a San Francisco Chronicle editorial argued that “hoarding” only makes things worse for everyone. In The Times of India, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria argues that “national hoarding” or curbing exports is itself a major problem, and that governments should not try to mitigate hunger by restraining exports.

“The lesson is clear. Curbing exports is a form of national hoarding. If every country tries to hoard food, food prices will naturally rise. Governments would like to believe that hoarding by traders is terrible, whereas hoarding by governments promotes the public interest. But the impact on prices is exactly the same in both cases. Indeed, when governments start to hoard food out of panic, the panic itself stokes further inflationary fears.

That is why I am not optimistic about the Indian government’s anti-inflation package. The government thinks it is improving domestic supplies and hence bringing down prices. In fact the government is adding to the global hoarding problem, and stoking panic too. So, expect food inflation to keep rising in coming months.

When and how will it end? The roots of today’s food inflation are global, and cannot be tackled by the Indian government in isolation. Inflation will come down only when world food production rises, and world prices fall. That cannot happen immediately. “

But implicit in this assumption is the belief that it would be better to let some people starve than to start the cycle of driving up prices, or having governments stabilize them. This is a form of free market orthodoxy that doesn’t tolerate any dissent - people dropping dead of starvation? Well, the solution is to let the market handle it, which, of course, it will - in due course. Pay no attention to the corpses on the side of the road. Wanting people to eat and worrying they won’t, well, that’s a form of panic! Crazy, crazy panic.

This orthodoxy also does not distinguish between forms of national hoarding - storing the food your country produces to feed its population is described as national hoarding - but no such description is given to the production of biofuels, almost always used within nations, to feed the cars of people who are already well fed. If there is a form of hoarding going on, it can be best seen in ethanol and other grain production - we are hoarding our food for our cars. We could make the same about meat production - heavy meat consumption results in the removal of potential exports from markets that, in this case, desperately need them.

Worldwide, the costs are already rising in human terms. The UK Guardian reports:

Cameroon At least 24 people killed and 1,600 people arrested in February. Taxes slashed on food imports and public sector wages increased by 15%.

Indonesia 10,000 demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Jakarta after soya bean prices rose more than 50% in a month and more than 125% over the past year.

Egypt Seven people have died in fights or of exhaustion queuing for subsidised bread. Dairy products are up 20%, oil 40%.

Burkina Faso Riots in three towns after the government promised to control the price of food but failed.

Guinea Five anti-government riots over cost of living in past 18 months.

Pakistan Thousands of troops have been deployed to guard trucks carrying wheat and flour.”

Earlier this week, the World Food Program head reported in Ethiopia that the problem is not absolute shortages, but growing urban hunger, as urban dwellers, pushed off the land by globalized practices of food dumping and now dependent on imported food, can no longer buy it. African nations that were once nearly food self-sufficient now depend on cheap imports for 40% or more of their food - and there are no more cheap imports.

So should you stop buying food to store? No. What you should stop doing, if you haven’t already is this. Stop eating CAFO meat - period. Don’t buy any meat that isn’t grassfed and local, and sustainably raised. Go vegetarian if you can’t get good local meat. And everyone who has more than they need needs to both redouble their charitable giving and their advocacy against biofuel growth. But don’t be ashamed of feeding your family, or planning ahead for tight supplies - instead, donate what you can so that someone in Asia or Africa can buy a little extra for their families. Let the cars worry about whether there will be enough grain in reserve. If you want to help stop biofuels growth, consider signing this petition and supporting the work of Food First and other groups trying to stop the conversion of human food to car food.

There is a Mishnah (a Rabbinical expansion of a Biblical Story) that says that after Joseph and his brothers were reunited, Jacob and his sons made their way to Egypt where there was food in the famine. On the way to Egypt, one day, Jacob awakens and tells his sons to get up and plant cedars in the desert. They ask him why? And Jacob answers that someday they will come out of Egypt again at the end of some terrible times, and when they do, their descendents will need those cedars. “So rise up now and plant seeds. For you are planting on this day the seeds of your own deliverance”

If you want to help in the world food crisis, give what you can, protest biofuels, and eat lower on the food chain. And at the same time, turn your efforts, the work of your hands and heart and time and energy to doing as Jacob and his sons did - planting seeds, the seeds of our own deliverance. The time is not so far that we will need them.

Sharon

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