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May 5, 2010
What a year 2010 has been so far. We have seen a series of natural and man made disasters which are biblical in scale. We started the year off with the Haiti earthquake and 250,000 dead. Next, we had the Chile earthquake and after that we have the ongoing Iceland Volcanic eruptions. And now we are dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which experts say will not be capped for three months at least. The sum total of these is disaster on a scale which overwhelms our jaded senses. Aside from the current military, political and economic chaos overwhelming the United States, we are facing a potential for agricultural shortages that will impact the daily lives of the American people. For instance, the recent frosts in Florida have significantly reduced the supply of fresh tomatoes. This will lead to higher prices for canned tomatoes, pasta sauces and ketchup down the road. In fact, the first four months of 2010 have seen significant increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs. This trend will continue for several reasons.
The United States is no longer a nation of family farmers. Much like the ancient Roman Republic we have replaced small scale family run farms with corporate run mega farms. One of the major reasons the Roman Republic fell was the replacing of small citizen run farms, described as "one citizen, 15 acres, two mules and one slave" with large slave labored ones. The Roman citizens were off fighting to create the Roman Empire. This led to their small farms being bought up by the rich and turned into slave labored plantations. The same process is well underway in the United States, and is having the same political effects as it did for the Roman Republic. Throw in Monsanto with its genetically modified food; the terminator seed program and you have all the ingredients for famine down the road. We don't have to go far down that road to see the ill effects.
Synergy is the scientific principle where the result exceeds the sum of the parts. Synergy is when two plus two does not equal four; rather, it equals six. We are at the point in modern American history where the production of food is reaching an impasse. I think there are two current factors which will aggravate the situation and lead to food shortages this year. There are additional factors like the increase in the cost of diesel oil, increases in the price of fertilizers and pesticides which come into play. However, the two I wish to talk about are in addition to these and will, in my opinion, overwhelm modern commercial food production techniques.
I will digress for a moment and highlight what I mean by commercial food production techniques. Despite the current frenzy over organic food, it is, in my opinion, simply impossible to produce the amounts of food needed to feed three hundred million plus Americans without using modern fertilizers and pesticides. A family can certainly engage in small scale gardening and farming using organic techniques. A family can raise small amounts of vegetables and fruits using organic techniques. What cannot be done is to raise commercial amounts of fruits and vegetables this way. You simply cannot raise several hundred acres of apples without using pesticides to kill the codling moth. Nor, can you raise hundreds of acres of cherries without spraying for cherry fruit flies. You can certainly raise up to a dozen apple and cherry trees organically, but you cannot raise thousands of them. I speak as a commercial orchardist here. In my youth, some forty years ago, I worked in commercial orchards. I pruned trees, sprayed trees with various pesticides; got up in the middle of the night to light orchard heaters to prevent the fruit from freezing. I have thinned fruit, picked fruit, irrigated acres of fruit trees and finally, I have driven the fruit bins up to the warehouse. Hickenbottom and Son in Sunnyside, Washington to be precise back in 1972. So, I know whereof I speak on commercial fruit production.
The point of all this is to convince people that the agricultural system in the USA currently requires an infrastructure as vast as any industrial or manufacturing operation. Large scale agriculture requires more than the work done by the farmer or orchardist: it requires the efforts of American industrial technology to get the crops needed to feed the nation. Something as simple as a disruption in the supply of diesel fuel in the spring would have a devastating effect on that year's food production. People may not want to hear this, but I speak the truth based on my personal experiences.
The reason 2010 is going to be a critical year in terms of modern food production is two fold. First, the Iceland volcanoes may cause a repeat of the "year with no summer" back in the 1800's. Plants require sunlight in order to grow. The ongoing eruptions in Iceland are sending vast plumes of ash into the atmosphere. These plumes have already shut down air travel to Europe twice. Further, these plumes are being pumped into the atmosphere and being carried over the globe. The result of that could be, it's not certain, reduced solar rays getting through our atmosphere. If that is the case, then we are looking at reduced growing seasons on a global basis. Besides that, in both Australia and China sever droughts are impacting food production. Finally, we are looking both at historically low grain reserves and also the U99 wheat rust in Africa and the Middle East. These factors alone will significantly impact global food production in 2010, which will lead to, at best, price increases.
If that is not enough to get your attention, I will add a further impact on fruit and vegetable production in the USA. I don't know that much about commercial vegetable production in the United States to judge the situation correctly. I do know that some crops are wind pollinated, like corn I believe. I also think that most vegetable crops require insect pollination to grow. I do know that all commercial varieties of fruit require insect pollination to create commercially viable fruit crops. By insect pollination I mean honey bees, usually European honey bees, being physically brought into the orchard to pollinate the fruit trees. The bees require certain temperatures in order to get the job done. The Iceland volcanoes may have already impacted the pollination process by reducing temperatures so much that bee pollination is less effective than it normally is. The pollination process is pretty much over in the United States and I am unclear how much it was impacted by decreased air temperatures. What I am sure of, based on media reports that one third of the bee population in the United States has died off since last fall, is there is a problem with fruit pollinatin this year. One third is an incredible number and will have/ has had a significant impact on commercial fruit production. I want to emphasize that commercial fruit production requires bees to pollinate the blooms which will become the fruit. No pollination means no fruit; reduced pollination means reduced fruit crops. Whether a one third reduction in bee populations will mean a linear one third decline in fruit crops is not clear. It depends on a lot of factors besides bees. I am absolutely certain there will significant declines in total fruit production in the United States simply because the fruit trees, whatever the exact percentages are, will be less productive since they were not pollinated as much. What that means is at best higher prices for fruit; at worst, declines in the total supply of fruit available. The quality should be higher as the trees will have less fruit on them, which means the size will be larger than normal. At least if the Iceland volcanoes don't reduce the quality and quantity of sunlight reaching the trees. Like I said, some things I see clearly, some I suspect and some I simply don't know.
I would suggest to the readers here at Q files you keep in mind what I have just written. At least you will not be surprised if fresh fruit, and canned fruit for that matter, is more costly than it was last year. Farming is one of the few areas where supply and demand tend to impact prices more quickly than other areas of our economy. Given the fact food prices have been going up since January at a rapid clip, I expect that process to continue.
On top of all the other issues America is dealing with, I am convinced that basic food supplies will now become a major issue, both in 2010 and onward. The days of cheap food in America are over in my opinion. I am not predicting famine, although one bad growing season would put us right at the edge of it. I am predicting significant price increases on various food products in the supermarket. It is clear to me the bee die off will have a serious effect on total fruit production in the United States. Combined with the disease killing off bats, we are likely to see more insects than ever before also. Nobody knows what is killing off either the bees or the bats; however, the impacts of these deaths will be seen soon enough.
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