Why grain and root vegetable storage needs to become a foundation of modern planning in the era of climate change

Grains and carbs may be on the outs with food fashionista these days, but the way we think about preserving them remains a good marker of whether we have kept our bearings — as proud beneficiaries of stable and “civilized” lifestyles, yet still humble beings in the face of Nature’s erratic patterns.

Likewise, our approach to storing non-perishable grains, beans and root vegetables is as a marker of whether we have kept our bearings as people who understand that present-day urban civilization faces unprecedented turbulence and vulnerability in terms of erratic climate, sporadic disease outbreaks and alarming terrorist threats — all of which can have immediate and direct impact on food availability and access.

These thoughts came to me as I wrestled with the implications of an article by Guelph University’s Evan Fraser and colleagues on “Food stocks and grain reserves: evaluating whether storing food creates resilient food systems,” recently published in the romantically-titled journal J Environ Stud Sci.

Principles related to resilience planning are a gathering force these days, as climate change, ecosystem instability and other deep-seated sources of volatility start to become top considerations in disaster preparation and management.

Houston during the 2016 flooding — not a good time to begin planning for food security.

New disaster planning standards for a newly urbanized, wired, hyper-complex and vulnerable world mean that food storage needs to be reevaluated and re-appreciated in light of global considerations that were not considered back in the 1990s, when the need for public control of food storage was poo-poohed. In those days on muscular neo-liberalism, public control of food storage was marginalized as just another case of the nanny state overreaching government’s limited role in food affairs. Supermarkets cut their storage costs with “Just in Time Delivery,” and storage capacity was cut back to about three days supply of food goods at hand. As a mark of the triumph of neo-liberalism over common sense, governments have accepted this standard of food security.

Since the fooforah about high-carb diets during the 1990s (with no regard to complex carbs based on whole foods), followed by last decade’s fooforah with grain intolerances (with no regard for ancient grains or non-grain carbs), we have lost sight of a few things about storing carbs that are not just about your and my personal preferences for particular dietary sources of our nutrients.

Two planning and public interest issues stand out for me when thinking about food storage.

Storage is partly about protecting farmers from bankruptcy in “good years” when there is a surplus — as much a problem for stable food security as scarcity

In the best of times, storage of grains, beans and root veggies helps stabilize supply and demand and avoid volatile price swings that could either put skilled farmers out of business or deprive families on fixed incomes of food basics. That’s not good for either food security or farm security.

In the worst of times, such as floods or fires that cut off delivery of long-distance food supplies, storage of grains, beans and root veggies helps stabilize public order and morale. Food storage is a must of emergency preparedness and disaster management.

The food waste story begins with food rotting because oversupply led to a crash in prices that couldn’t cover the costs of getting perfectly good food to market. Doesn’t storage make more economic sense than this level of waste?

WHY COMPLEX CARBS ARE A FOUNDATION OF CIVILIZATION

Grains are rightly called a foundation of civilization.

Before grains, most people lived mostly hand-to-mouth, with whatever they foraged that day. Humans relied on foods that were perishable, sometimes perishable in a matter of hours or days. That made food storage for a rainy day or trade of surplus well-nigh impossible.

As a result of relying on perishable foods, lives were exposed to a high level of risk. We modern interdependent and high-tech humans are said to be a mere “nine meals from anarchy” in the event of a truckers strike or a flood that blocks transportation.

But our ancient ancestors were even more vulnerable to shocks because they had far fewer non-perishable foodstuffs and far fewer methods of preserving foods than we enjoy. That made things difficult when the offerings from local hunting and gathering were lean — as happened from time to time in many parts of the world.

Some very persistent genetic traits — most notably so-called “frugal genes” that cause so much frustration for people who want to lose weight by exercizing — continue to be passed on as survival traits from that era.

Some say that “small fridges lead to big community” and there’s a big grain of truth in that. Lack of refrigeration encouraged group feasts when a large animal was hunted down, since there was no logic to hoarding such foods because they would just rot. Lack of storage also discouraged long trips and long wars (alas, another product of civilization), since it was hard to put on many miles and carry heavy-duty equipment while living off the land.

But lack of storage also made it hard to trade food over longer distances, and hard to produce much of a leisure class that could make a living looking at stars, thinking up alphabets and arithmetic tables, and concocting self-aggrandizing pyramid schemes and other megaprojects.

Ancient Egyptians understood the need for grain storage. All that got forgotten in 2008.

Without grain storage, cities of any consequence were impossible. That put a crimp on the greatest competitive advantage enjoyed by humans — the ability to create culture and share and grow it through sharing of ideas as well as food.

The primary advantage of grains was not nutrients. Indeed, nutrients from a wide variety of complex and perishable carbs found in plants and tubers are likely superior to what’s in grains.

The unique value proposition of grains, and what made them a game-changer in human history, was their ability to be stored, using low-tech methods, for long periods of time.

Grains didn’t require refrigeration or any modern technologies. They just had to be stored in a dry place that other animals couldn’t get access to. Many root vegetables could also be protected by simple adaptations to the microclimate, such as provided by “root cellars.”

That’s probably why storing grains and root veggies entered the cultural DNA of humanity.

Every major civilization and most religions preached and practiced storage of food from boom years to ride out the bust from bad years. Some version of holy days and holidays mark the harvest season and the putting away of stored surplus in every culture. Until the 1990s, best practice was to keep a year’s grain on hand.

THE END OF HISTORY

That all changed during the 1990s, when the end of history was declared, neo-liberalism declared triumphant, and grains became just another commodity, not a foundation stone of social cohesion, the public good and civilization.

Since the implementation of globalization agendas promoted during the 1990s, institutions and practices designed to store grains have been systematically destroyed.

I believe we should start thinking about neo-liberalism, and its record of ending grain storage, as an anti-civilizing force that leaves humans exposed to shifts in climate and other uncontrollable threats to food stability and security.

Neo-liberals lost sight of the long history of riots and revolution triggered by shortages and speculation in grain, a precipitating factor in the French and Russian revolutions

The neo-liberal logic in ending storage is pretty simplistic. Humans have global transportation and trade systems which allow us to respond efficiently to lean seasons or years in any one place, the voices of neo-liberal calm and reason tell us. For every country that loses a crop because of a late-summer cold snap, there’s another country with a surplus that needs to be treated. The equilibrium is perfect, neo-liberals would say.

Coarse-grained, to say the least.

When the staff of life and civilization is controlled by a few global corporations, not the growing conditions in many communities and nations, that level of monopoly constitutes a major problem for food security. That problem requires the countervailing power of storage.

Many global monopolies reap more profit from speculation than food. Their specialty is “arbitrage” — the difference between the price a product is bought at and sold at. Some monopolies, with excellent abilities to track local weather and harvests around the world, can profit more from volatility than security.

That vested interest in volatility is in deep conflict of interest with the public interest, and should not be allowed to prevail in food storage policy, or in government regulation of predatory monopolies.

We need a finely-grained basis for good public policy.

We have also forgotten how many food security functions are fulfilled by storage.

Storage supports farmers when they have a bumper harvest. Public storage allows farmer to reap the rewards of the harvest by selling what’s surplus to consumer needs to a public agency and get a fair price.

Farmers should not be penalized for a bumper harvest by losing their shirts when they have to sell short to get any price at all. We shouldn’t bail out farmers driven to bankruptcy by faulty market mechanisms. We should prevent bankruptcies by responding to an obvious market failure. (For heartbreaking examples of this in the Global South, see here.)

Supporting farmers in good as well as bad years is fundamental to farmer security, and therefore to food security.

Robust storage provisions also enhance the ability of governments, not corporations, to decide on such public interest matters as whether or not to donate one country’s surplus to another country in desperate need.

Public storage provides the ultimate hedge against speculators jacking up the price of grain in lean times.

Bread shortages in Egypt sparked the mass movement to oust a longtime dictator

That happened in 2008, when grain prices went crazy and the poor in many areas of the world were literally starving.

The famous Arab Spring, massive unrest and destabilization throughout northern Africa and the Middle East, was quite intimately linked to these price hikes, as documented here. (I have written about the connection of grain speculation to the Arab Spring here.)

When we get around to adding up the ongoing human and economic costs of civil unrest and civil war triggered by that one bout of speculation in food prices, it will likely be regarded as the greatest market failure in history.

When promoters of lower levels of storage talk about the need for more market sensitivity in grain markets, they mean that the small number of corporations that control the grain trade should be in charge of the cornerstone of the world’s food supply.

There’s little market sensitivity to, as Oxfam has documented, fewer than five global corporations control some 90 per cent of grain trading. That’s monopoly sensitivity, not market sensitivity.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES

That year, 2008, is a red letter year that should not be pushed out of the collective unconscious. It revealed that grain is not a matter of dietary choice, but a necessity of both stability and civilization.

As a necessity of civilization, its carriage belongs where other necessities of civilization belong — in the public eye, where people can track trends that may be dangerous, and to at least some extent, in the public realm in terms of storage.

It’s not that grains are the be-all and end-all in food. I personally think people should wean themselves from too much dietary reliance on grains, and shift toward vegetables as their major source of complex carbohydrates.

Newfoundland’s iconic roots cellars were once landmarks, and are now relics of a time when the province was more self-reliant in its food policy.

Vegetables, unlike grains, can be grown efficiently in almost every corner of the world. They do not require large fields or large amounts of mechanization. Vegetables are not mainly located in drylands, the lands best suited to grains, but which are widely expected to be subject to drought during the decades ahead.

Vegetables are also better than grains as a response to obesity, which has overtaken absolute hunger as the top threat to human health. Its simply harder to remove the complexity of complex carbs from veggies than it is from grains — many of which are stripped of their nutrient-dense fiber and germ during processing.

But grains have never, and do not now, add value to human well-being because of their nutrients. Their contribution is to the production of non-perishable staples that make for stable and secure communities with stable and secure food supplies.

If we appreciate and respect grains as essential to civilization, we may recover the food security ground we lost during the 1990s when global corporations convinced governments around the world that grain was just an individual nutritional choice, and therefore ripe for privatization.

For trends in grain storage see here and here and here and here. For an example of how levels of storage cause swings in stock prices, which some prosper from more than others, see here. The latest data on stocks is here. (Special thanks go to researcher extraordinaire Darrin Qualman for leads on many of these sources.)

Bu the civilizing argument is the grain of truth that underlies a cornerstone of food security.

A world entering the era of climate instability and precarious ecosystems needs an extra hedge against social instability that can become dangerous within short bursts of time — as short as three days.

This pokes a little fun at a prospect that is not funny at all.

The watchword on that subject was first uttered in 1907. It was repeated 99 years later in response to developing panic about UK food shortages caused by a truckers’ strike. The phrase was — civilization rests on perch that is only nine meals from anarchy. (See the link to my article on this concept here.)

Governments that want to plan and lead with such prospects in mind will look to reinforce supplies of grains that have become quite tight since global corporations took unrestricted control of storage.

At a time when resilience has become a vital precautionary principle, which requires consideration attention in any plans designed to have impact beyond a few months, grain storage deserves priority attention.

In an era when root vegetables are more respected than grains for their rich and complex source of nutrients, an equal priority should be extended to storage of root vegetables. We need to modernize, not abolish, food storage systems.

Compare world population and grain storage from 1960 to 2017, and see how little difference there is between 2007–8 grain price crises and 2017 (Thanks to Darrin Qualman for the link to this and other vital info)

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Teaser photo credit: rom Globe and Mail.