Are food prices too high or not high enough?
These days I doubt there is a correct answer to any of our social problems. We can only choose to act on which wrong answers do the least harm. Recently I listened to a news report on the rise in global food prices that didn’t quite add up to me. The foregone conclusion was that climate change in the form of too much rain was causing food shortages and rising food prices around the world. No attempt was made to give evidence that climate change was the cause; it was simply presumed to be the case. The report focused on what farmers were doing to cope.
I can’t speak to the rice problem because I’ve never grown any, although I do know that much of the crop spends quite a bit of its growing season standing in water so maybe heavier than usual rain could be helpful. If we could get our corn and wheat to grow in standing water, we would be way ahead of the game right now.
But what the report then said about American farming sounded vaguely lopsided to someone who has been around corn and wheat a long time. First of all, the report seemed to be contradicting its opening fears of coming starvation. Actually, the commentator said, American grain production was generally up, not down, although perhaps not up enough to feed an ever rising world population. If that is so, maybe global warming has helped, not hindered. But there was not one word about how rising population might be part of the problem.
But after having primed the listener with the notion that we are all in danger of starvation because of grain shortages except the rich, the report did an about face and said that American farmers were coping with the heavy rains fairly well. Farmers were adapting to climate change three ways: 1) new varieties that responded better to adverse conditions; 2) spraying more fungicides to ward off fungal diseases; and 3) using bigger equipment.
I have a hunch this report was inspired by a news release out of the ivy halls of agrimonsantaclaus. I am standing here looking at our fields in Ohio covered with water or mud. Well, yes, if you bioengineered corn and wheat varieties with some rice genes, I expect farmers could respond to this adverse weather better, but first you’d have to get the plants in the mud or water. Maybe we could transplant our bioengineered corn varieties the way many Asians do their rice: by hand. And yes, spraying them with more fungicides might ward off diseases, but again you have to have something out there to spray. Bigger equipment? It would have to be equipped with pontoons. Bigger equipment is the primary problem in a wet planting season. It causes compaction seven feet down unless the soil is perfectly dry, soil scientists are telling us.
Not one mention was made of the best way to be farming this year: letting the animals graze for their food as they turn untilled pasture into meat, milk and eggs. It has been so wet that you didn't dare put cows on some pastures some days but, on the whole, pasture farmers are happy with all this rain: we could graze twice as many animals as normal.
Not one mention was made of the small farm alternative. In 1947 we could not get into the fields at all until May 28. Believe it or not, we got the crops all in with our puny little tractors and teams of horses and no one starved. Since there were three times as many farmers dividing up the job, none of them were faced with the awesome task of navigating five or ten thousand acres with tractors the size and shape of Spanish galleons.
Not one mention was made of the fact that on the other food front, we are in good shape considering the weather. Gardeners with raised beds or super-loamy soil have their peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce, onions and potatoes up and growing, and early sweet corn planted. Where there are many hands to make light the task, we can handle adverse weather a whole lot better than anybody’s bioengineered, triple-stacked, hybrid wonder plants can do.
I want to say that population pressures are far more a cause of high food prices than climate change, but I’m not sure that is the right story either. Maybe higher food prices are good if they persuade more people to get out there and grow some food. The problem is not (yet) overpopulation, but too many people involved in non-productive work.
Meanwhile, the disastrous drought continues in Texas and the southwest. Global warming, no doubt.