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Keeping fed

My book is still at the printer's, and so it is time to publish another excerpt. Since food shortages are all over the news, I thought it fitting to make this excerpt about food. You can also listen to me read it on C-Realm Podcast, Episode 72. -DO

The inability to feed their people stands as the Soviet Union’s most striking failure. In just a couple of generations, a country that was the breadbasket of Europe had been turned into Europe’s agricultural basket case, so that by the time the Soviet Union collapsed it was financially and politically hamstrung by its need to obtain grain import credits from countries that were hostile to its interests. In the 1970s, an oil boom made it complacent, but when the boom ended and oil prices collapsed it was left with no room to maneuver. Its oil provinces reached their all-time peak of production in the mid-80s; consequently, it was unable to further ramp up production and boost exports.

How does a country with more arable land than just about any other, an ancient and successful agricultural tradition complete with all-you-can-eat food festivals and a history of grain surpluses, produce such a dismal result? A short excursion into Russian history might be instructive here: small mishaps can be produced accidentally, but disasters on this scale take serious effort. Speaking of agricultural disasters as a class, it is worth noting at the outset that agriculture is seriously dull work, best done by decidedly simple people who do not mind bending down to touch the ground all day until they look like hunchbacks. Almost genetically predisposed to growing food, these hunchbacks are to be found in all traditional farming societies the world over. As they toil, they wear out the soil very slowly or, if they are not too stressed, and just a bit clever, not at all. In return for their humble servitude, they stay in daily and direct contact with nature in all of its fickle bounty, remaining part of it. As long as they do not resort to shortcuts, such as relying on just one plant, be it maize or potato, their numbers fluctuate naturally along with the climate. But try replacing the humble hunchback with a university-trained agronomist, her hoe with a tractor, her bag of heirloom seeds with some mass-produced hybrid and rainfall with an irrigation pump, and you soon find yourself on the road to environmental oblivion. While Russian agriculture presents us with a particularly frightening example, let us not discount American efforts in the same direction: with enough effort at subjugating nature, through chemical farming, genetic manipulation, pumping down non-replenishing aquifers, ethanol production and other weapons of mass desertification, anything is achievable, even starvation, right here in the US.

Up to the middle of the 19th century, the Russian empire operated something vaguely analogous to the plantation system in the old South, with an ever more distant, French-speaking nobility presiding over a multitude of illiterate, Russian-speaking serfs. Based on a more humane serfdom rather than outright slavery, it bound peasants to the land, giving the landowner control over its use and nominal responsibility for their welfare. As the 19th century wore on, the imperial throne found the perpetuation of serfdom increasingly embarrassing to its international prestige as a leading European power, and so, in 1861, less than a month before the outbreak of the American Civil War, serfdom was abolished by imperial decree, without any bloodshed and without any serious detriment to agricultural production. Some peasants were gradually able to acquire their own land, and by the early 20th century the more fertile parts of Russia and the Ukraine had many prosperous farming families. Pre-Revolutionary Russia was, by all accounts, a well-fed place.

Then came the man-made disaster, known as collectivization, the results of which can be plainly visible to this day to anyone who travels through rural Russia and the surrounding lands. The epicenter of this disaster is central Russia, and the further out one travels — to the Baltic states or to Western Ukraine — the less one sees of its enduring devastation. It is as if a series of plagues had swept through the land, leaving poverty and desolation in its wake. Under the revolutionary slogan “All land to the people!” the prosperous farming families were labelled as the class enemy and persecuted. Grain, including seed grain, was confiscated to feed the starving cities. The result was starvation in the countryside and a collapsing rural population. In place of the prosperous family farms, collective farms were organized, once again binding peasants to the land, but without the benefit of the old church-bound feudal traditions. The introduction of mechanized farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and “scientific” farming methods did little to forestall the disaster: the best farmers were either dead or had escaped to the cities. Despite much government effort and some wildly creative solutions, such as attempts at broadcasting seeds using rockets, agricultural production never fully recovered, because fixing the problem involved undoing collectivization and this was not politically advisable.

Another thing not politically advisable was neglecting to feed the people. In particular, all areas at all times had to be supplied with bread, which, more than any other staple, was symbolic of the covenant between the Communist government and the subservient masses. Bread riots, which could not be repressed and could only be quelled by a serendipitous delivery of bread, struck fear into the heart of every local Communist functionary. To make such a scenario unlikely, there were local food stockpiles in every city, stocked according to a government allocation scheme, and staples such as bread were almost always available. And while the quality of other government-supplied food was sometimes questionable, the bread was always excellent — a reflection of its symbolic importance. But the right to be fed did not necessarily extend beyond the basic carbohydrates, especially in the outlying areas. Moscow was always the best-supplied city, with Leningrad a distant second, while in many provincial towns the store shelves were mostly bare except for bread, vodka and a few varieties of canned foods, and whenever some scarce item, such as sausage, suddenly appeared, lines would instantly form until it was sold out. Shopping was rather labor intensive, and involved carrying heavy loads. Sometimes it resembled hunting — stalking that elusive piece of meat lurking behind some
store counter.

Shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, it became known informally that the ten percent of farmland allocated to kitchen gardens (in meager tenth of a hectare plots) accounted for some 90 percent of domestic food production. During and after the economic collapse, with the government stores quite uncontaminated by food, and often closed altogether, these plots became lifesavers for many families. The summer of 1990 particularly stands out in my mind: it was the summer when we ate nothing but rice (imported), zucchini (grown by us) and fish (from a local lake, caught by some neighbors).

The dismal state of Soviet agriculture turned out to be paradoxically beneficial in fostering a kitchen garden economy, which helped Russians to survive the collapse. Russians always grew some of their own food, and scarcity of high-quality produce in the government stores kept the kitchen garden tradition going during even the more prosperous times of the 60s and the 70s. After the collapse, these kitchen gardens turned out to be lifesavers. What many Russians practiced, either through tradition or by trial and error, or sheer laziness, was in some ways akin to the new organic farming and permaculture techniques. Many productive plots in Russia look like a riot of herbs, vegetables, and flowers growing in wild profusion. In the waning years of the Soviet era, the kitchen garden economy continued to gain in importance. Beyond underscoring the gross inadequacies of Soviet-style command and control industrial agriculture, the success of the private kitchen gardens is indicative of a general fact: agriculture is far more efficient when it is carried out on a small scale, using manual labor.

While most families cooked and ate at home, institutional fare was also considered important. With salaries regulated and with nothing interesting to spend them on, how well fed one was at work took on added significance. Institutional food varied in quality: officers in the nuclear navy ate remarkably well, while privates in the infantry were fed unremarkable porridge and soup. Jobs at many government organizations, factories and institutes were valued for the quality of their commissaries. These sometimes stayed open even as the economy crumbled, production lines stood still, and salaries went unpaid for months, providing an important lifeline. Some factory cafeterias even went beyond providing a hot meal; there, workers could buy a whole uncooked chicken or scarce canned goods, all very reasonably priced.

Restaurants did exist, but were generally outside the budgetary constraints of most families. They always struck me as rather odd, because their menus were by and large works of fiction. Whatever it was you tried to order, the waitress would invariably respond with a laconic “Nyetu! ” (“We don’t have that”). After a few attempts at ordering something you might actually want, you would break down and ask: “What do you have? ” The answer to this mystery would be something like “Borscht. It’s good today.” Surprisingly enough, it often was quite good. Although restaurants were something of a rarity, there were always plenty of snack bars, ice cream parlors and refreshment stands.

In addition to small-scale farming, forests in Russia have always been used as an important additional source of food. Russians recognize and eat just about every edible mushroom variety and all of the edible berries. During the peak mushroom season, which is generally in the fall, forests are overrun with mushroom pickers. The mushrooms are either pickled or dried and stored, and often last throughout the winter.

In spite of the monumental failures of Soviet agriculture, the overall structure of Soviet-style food delivery proved to be paradoxically resilient in the face of economic collapse and disruption. The combination of local food stockpiles administered by politicians conditioned to treat bread riots as career-ending calamities, the prevalence of government institutions that attended to the sustenance of their employees and plenty of kitchen gardens, meant that there was no starvation and very little malnutrition. But will fate be as kind to the United States?

In the United States, most people get their food from a supermarket, which is supplied from far away using refrigerated diesel trucks, making them entirely dependent on the widespread availability of transportation fuels and the continued maintenance of the interstate highway system. In an energy-scarce world, neither of these is a given. Most supermarket chains have just a few days’ worth of food in their inventory, relying on advanced logistical planning and just-in-time delivery to meet demand. Thus, in many places, food supply problems are almost guaranteed to develop. When they do, no local authority is in a position to exercise control over the situation and the problem is handed over to federal emergency management authorities. Based on their performance after Hurricane Katrina, these authorities are not only manifestly incompetent, but also appear to be ruled by the ethos that it is better for the government to deny services than provide them, to avoid creating a population that is dependent on government help.

Many people in the United States don’t even bother to shop and just eat fast food. The drive to maximize profit while minimizing costs has resulted in a product that manipulates the senses into accepting as edible something that is mainly a waste product. Under strict process control procedures, agro-industrial wastes, sugar, fat and salt are combined into an appealing presentation, packaged, and reinforced by vigorous advertising. Once accepted, it beguiles the senses by its reliable consistency, creating a lifelong addiction to bad food. The chemical industry obliges with an array of deodorants to mask the sickly body odor such a diet produces. Immersed for a lifetime in a field of artificial sensory perceptions, dominated by chemical, man-made tastes and smells, people recoil in shock when confronted with something natural, be it a simple piece of boiled chicken liver or the smell of a healthy human body. Perversely, they do not mind car exhaust and actually like the carcinogenic “new car smell” of vinyl upholstery.

When people do cook, they rarely cook from scratch, but simply re-heat prepackaged factory-produced meals. When they do cook from scratch, the supposedly fresh ingredients come from thousands of miles away and are selected for ease of shipping rather than any actually desirable qualities, making them woody or pulpy and only barely edible. Since good taste is no longer on the menu, the focus shifts to quantity, resulting in appallingly sized portions of undifferentiated protein and starch drowned in fat, administered in national festivals of pathetic gorging, of which Thanksgiving seems to be the main one. But this is all good for business and keeps the cancer, diabetes and heart disease industries humming. This is all very unhealthy, and the effect on the nation’s girth is visible clear across the parking lot. A lot of the people, who just waddle to and from their cars, seem unprepared for what is coming next. If they suddenly had to start living like Russians they would blow out their knees. Most of them would not even try, but simply wait, patiently or impatiently, for someone to come and feed them. And if that food arrives and consists of a styrofoam box containing a puck of pseudo-meat between two pucks of pseudo-bread and a plastic bottle of water laced with pseudo-syrup, they would be satisfied.

But the food may never arrive. There is already a fair amount of hunger in the United States and many families are forced to choose between food and gasoline. Gasoline is the greater of the two necessities, because it is necessary for them to drive to buy food: their car always gets to eat first. In the future, the choice will be made for them: they will be priced out of the market, their food used to produce ethanol, so that the more fortunate can keep driving their cars a tiny bit longer. The process of starving them out might go by one of the euphemistic terms economists seem to favor, such as the somewhat sinister “demand destruction,” or the more bland “load shedding.” This process is already underway in Mexico, where corn masa producers who provide a staple purchased by the poor are squeezed out by the ethanol producers. The United States is next. Who is that skeleton driving a pickup truck? Let us hope it is not you, but someone else — someone less fortunate than you, with whom you are not acquainted.

Editorial Notes: Dmitry Orlov's article Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US remains one of the all-time-favorites of EB readers. His book Reinventing Collapse should be out soon. -BA

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