Among the headlines informing us of war, school shootings, raging inflation, climate events and monkeypox, there are also stories of looming food shortages.
I’m not enough of an economist to know whether we are heading for a recession, depression or “great reset,” so I’ll pass on commenting on that, but as a farmer I can give my perspective on the food shortage situation.
It is hard for many to imagine we could have food shortages in North America where we have so much food, where widespread obesity is a problem and where we have such an abundance of grain we have to feed it to ruminant animals and burn it in our cars (in the form of corn-based ethanol) to get rid of it.
However, the old proverb is “Nature always bats last,” so maybe we are starting to see nature’s response to modern agriculture. I will admit modern agriculture produces a lot of food, but I am not so sure the food is actually good for us and even less sure that it is sustainable. Meanwhile, I am very certain it hangs on some very delicate threads.
A CYCLE OF DEPENDENCY
There was great consternation in the farming community last winter when the specter of a manufactured nitrogen fertilizer shortage appeared. Most farmers did not think they could grow much of a crop without it. In the end, it was available, but at double or triple the cost of previous years.
These events drove home the point that modern agriculture is totally dependent on manufactured fertilizer, as well as glyphosate, genetically modified seeds and diesel fuel. Anything that restricts access to any of these things will decrease food output. We are seeing how quickly an event like war can disrupt the supply of inputs.
Even beyond that, modern agriculture has created a cycle of dependency. The more you use chemical fertilizers and herbicides, the less natural your soil life will be, and the more you will need to add more fertilizer and herbicides. It becomes a vicious cycle that makes farmers dependent on the large fertilizer and herbicide companies, which have become wealthy from this treadmill.
That’s on the crop side. On the animal husbandry side, modern agriculture has developed the same dependence on manufactured solutions. It may be efficient to put twenty thousand chickens in the same barn, but it is also convenient for pathogens to have close contact with so many potential hosts. Along with this model, therefore, come the vaccines, antibiotics and biosecurity deemed necessary to keep the animals alive. And even with all these measures, industrial farmers are not staying ahead of nature. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two species that are factory farmed the most—pigs and chickens—have the most severe disease outbreaks.
It annoys me that no one ever talks about the root causes of these outbreaks—such as overcrowding, lack of sunshine, exposure to excrement and unnatural diets. Instead, wildlife and outdoor-raised animals get blamed for spreading these diseases. The “solutions” proposed include having farmers who raise animals on pasture move their pigs, cows and chickens inside—away from contact with wildlife—and exterminating all flocks in the vicinity of an outbreak to “contain the spread.”
Yet it seems the larger that factory farms become, and the more they isolate, vaccinate, medicate and disinfect, the worse the outbreaks become. Instead of looking at solutions like spreading out animal production among thousands of small flock holders, industry simply invents and gives more vaccines and antibiotics, while biosecurity measures become harsher and disinfecting measures become more rigorous. This is a continuous, losing battle against nature, but it makes pharmaceutical companies wildly wealthy.
WORKING WITH NATURE
Thus, we come to the crux of the matter concerning the difference between sustainable regenerative farming and conventional modern farming. Modern agriculture wants to control the environment in which it raises plants and animals, whereas regenerative farmers want plants and animals to adapt to the environment in which they are raised.
This is the journey we are on. The more we can work with nature instead of against it, the less dependent we will be on manufactured solutions. In our case, we are not a completely self-sufficient, off-the-grid farm yet, but I can confidently say the pastures we graze to produce milk and meat do not need (or get) any chemical fertilizers, glyphosate or genetically modified seeds. Our animals are in a natural environment on a natural diet. As a result, they are healthy enough that we do not have to worry about the diseases that visitors or wildlife might bring onto our farm. This philosophy also permeates my own lifestyle. I focus on a diet of grass-fed products to strengthen my immune system rather than depend on vaccines to protect me against the environment in which I live.
To go from the philosophical to the practical, here are some things we know about factors affecting the food supply. First, we have a blockade preventing Ukraine from shipping wheat. Second, we have a bird flu that has killed over thirty million birds (directly or through extermination). Third, thousands of beef animals died in Kansas, with their death attributed to a heat wave. Fourth, we have had many unexplained fires at large food processing plants. Fifth, we have major volatility in the diesel fuel and nitrogen markets. Finally, we have volatility in our weather systems.
With the amount of food exported from Canada and North America, I don’t think we are going to see widespread food shortages here. More realistically, we will see food prices rise sharply, and we may have fewer food choices. For example, there could be shortages of chicken due to bird flu and a fire at the Cargill poultry processing plant in London, Ontario.
The near tripling of nitrogen prices will drive up the cost of almost everything, because if something isn’t organic, it was probably raised with nitrogen. To understand why nitrogen is so popular among plant growers, think about what steroids do for people—nitrogen is like steroids for plants. With chemically produced nitrogen, growers can easily double or triple the amount of food they can harvest; because they are paid for volume, not quality, all conventional growers use it. (This applies to many home gardeners, too.) However, think about what we know about the side effects of steroids—the same holds true for nitrogen fertilizers. Healthy soils have a very intricate system for capturing nitrogen from the air and making it available to plants in moderate amounts.
In addition to the rising cost of nitrogen, costs for fuel and labor are surging. Thus, some companies may choose to drop some of their not-so-popular products and focus more on the basics. Again, this would have the result of reducing some of the variety we are accustomed to seeing in our grocery stores.
Now, having said I don’t think we will see major food shortages in North America, here comes the disclaimer. All it would take is an event like worsening weather conditions, a widening of war or further disruption to the fuel supply, and things could deteriorate extremely quickly.
One of the important lessons I learned when there was a brief run on food during the early days of Covid was how fast we sell out if there is an unexpected uptick in demand—and how long it takes to rebuild inventory again. To get a sense of timelines, it takes us eight weeks to fatten a chicken, four months to fatten a hog and a year to fatten a cow. So, if there is a run on food and we sell out, we can’t have products for you tomorrow.
What are some steps you can take to mitigate the risk of food shortages? First, pre-order your meat. By systematically booking ahead and reserving your quarters, sides or whole animals, you can ensure you will always have food coming in. Your farmer won’t sell that side of beef to someone else if you have it reserved. It also helps us as farmers to have a clearer picture of how many animals to enter into production, or how many new customers to take on.
Second, buy shares in a CSA (community-supported agriculture). This is another good food security system. Again, it connects you to an actual grower who can gauge how much product to plant by the number of shares purchased.
Third, have three months’ worth of food on hand. I stole this food security idea from a financial adviser who proclaimed that the most important step for financial security is to have an emergency fund that can cover three months’ worth of expenses in case your income dries up. This buys you time to find another source of income. The same principle can be used to ensure food security, in case there are gaps in food availability.
Alas and alack, some of us may not have enough savings to get us through three months if our income dries up. In that scenario, the financial advisor suggested breaking the emergency fund down into smaller increments and at least working toward saving up for one month. Likewise, if you don’t have the space or budget to stock up on three months of food, you can work toward stocking up on one month of food. This way, you still have something to bridge the gaps if food availability becomes spotty.
Finally, remember that no man is an island. None of us will ever be completely self-sufficient. We will always need other people to help us survive, so let’s work on building relationships and networks with like-minded people.
It’s also important to stay positive. God is big, and we are small, so let’s not get dragged down worrying about things we can’t control anyway. It would be a shame to miss out on enjoying current blessings by worrying about future problems.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2022🖨️ Print post