Food deficits, deadlier than budget deficits

farming

SEQUIM, Wash. - The United Nations reported recently that global hunger has soared 11 percent from 915 million people to 1.02 billion as consumption of staple crops - wheat, rice, soybeans and corn - outstrips production.

It reverses half a century in which the so-called "Green Revolution" led to a six-fold increase in food production, gradually reducing food deficits around the world. Global climate change, the resulting droughts, floods and other extreme weather, coupled with population growth, are blamed for the resurgent hunger. Food prices in many regions have doubled, touching off food riots and destabilizing nations as far-flung as Mexico, Yemen, Uzbekistan and Egypt.

The New York Times, in a June 5 report headlined "A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself," warned that without prompt action, these food deficits will grow, with the danger of famines that would take the lives of millions.

Living on a farm makes me think long and deep about food deficits here at home and around the world, deficits far more menacing than the budget deficits that lawmakers rant and rave about. The deficits in the stomachs of the poor could turn into starvation - or food poisoning - if Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian budget, with its vicious cutbacks in nutrition programs and food safety enforcement, is approved by the Senate.

Nash Huber, who has raised vegetables, eggs, hogs and now grain on 400 leased acres in this valley since 1979, is certainly part of the answer to food shortages. He was awarded the annual "Steward of the Land" prize in 2008 by the American Farmland Trust. He has recruited a team of young men and women who have chosen farming as their vocation.

They planted wheat on our farm a couple of years ago and it grew into a bumper crop. He sent off a sample for analysis and it came back with a stunning result: 15.5 percent protein, so high he thought it was a mistake. It was not. A few weeks later, local bakeries were selling "artisan bread made from Nash Huber's organic wheat." It is delicious!

Huber made a trip to Europe a few years ago, obtaining seeds for varieties of cabbage and other vegetables long vanished from our monoculture grocery stores. These "legacy" varieties are now growing luxuriantly in this valley, shipped to farmers markets here and as far away as Seattle.

The newsletter of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society featured an article by Liz Sarno, who came to see Huber's operation for herself. She hailed the young farmers as "energetic, enthusiastic... passionate about what they are contributing ...caretakers for this special piece of fertile soil."

Huber's operation, she wrote, could be a model to "help revitalize and rejuvenate our dwindling rural communities," by attracting thousands of young people back into farming.

Yet Huber and his followers face a daunting struggle. This valley, once a thriving dairy center, has lost 70 percent of farmland to real estate development. Many of the houses now stand vacant in the collapse of the housing boom.

Corporate agribusiness is another ruthless foe. A couple of months ago, about 40 people, many of them Huber's followers, stood on the main intersection in Sequim holding signs like "Stop Monsanto" and "No More Frankenfood." It was part of the "Millions Against Monsanto" campaign.

One protester held a sign blasting Monsanto for its role in driving 100,000 Indian farmers to suicide as the corporation attempted to impose a modern form of peonage, forcing farmers to buy Monsanto's genetically modified seeds rather than setting aside next year's seed corn from their own crops.

Budget cutbacks are crippling agricultural research. Funding for the network of worldwide agricultural research stations set up under the leadership of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug has been slashed by half in the past 20 years, with some of these centers "suffering mass layoffs," the Times reported. These are the research institutions that developed the grains that made the "green revolution."

President Obama pledged $3.5 billion to support this research during an international meeting in A'quila, Italy, two years ago. A total of $22 billion was pledged. So far, though, Congress has approved only $1.9 billion, and the balance is in doubt, given budget deficit hysteria. And much of the $22 billion was not new money but rather nations reiterating pledges made earlier. Politicians who slash research aimed at averting famines "know the cost of everything and the value of nothing."

Over half a century ago, my father, one spring, planted oats on fifty acres of our farm. It grew with remarkable vigor. When the breeze picked up in the evenings that summer, it sent rippling waves across a vast, emerald sea.

The combine arrived in late August and I was assigned to ride in the big box on the bed of our ton-and-a-half Dodge, shoveling the grain into the corners to even the load. The oats poured in a golden torrent around my knees, 140 bushels per acre, as the combine inched along. We harvested about 147 tons of oats from that field. That's enough cereal to feed the population of a medium-sized town for a month or so.

We need farm policies that keep farmers on the land, producing enough nutritious food to feed the hungry and sustain our planet. We also need budget policies that combat hunger by doing the research, making food safe and affordable.

Photo: Nash Huber, left, leads members of the Olympic Orchard Society on a tour of his Dungeness farm. Tim Wheeler/PW

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