My intent in writing is plain enough — to stay alert — to stay alive and to keep alive connections that foster buildable lifestyles and promote a responsible relationship with the earth’s resources — the only relationship that resonates meaningful living. With that intent, I care, I learn, I write, and I share.
When I went for a leisurely walk Sunday morning, the sky was cobalt blue, ravens side-slipped in a light breeze and tree’s swayed easily in rhythm. With a bright sun holding court over this scene, it seemed unimaginable that anything could be out-of-place. In that moment, I wondered how anyone could communicate that anything was amiss. It seems all too perfect. Yet, everything is relative depending on whether you’re a person strolling on a beautifully day or a water system that’s failing under its gaze.
The great rivers of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta are the source of water for 23 million people. The delta irrigates five million acres of farmland, and represents the largest watershed complex in California connecting the California State Water Project and the Central Valley Water Project. In May and August of 2007, Federal Judge Oliver Wanger of Sacramento mandated as much as a 35% reduction in that systems water draws. The resulting shortfall translates into a 30% water reduction for San Diego and as much as 50% for Santa Clara County and will significantly reduce food production from those food growing regions.
Wanger’s decree states that water in the Sacramento Delta is being depleted faster than it can be replenished. And, PhD Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute concurs noting that overpumping the delta has promoted salt water intrusion — jeopardizing food-producing delta regions that have sunk below sea level from over-pumping and polluting the fresh water drawn from that system. These fragile levees are old and in disrepair and vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. This natural estuary supports salmon and several species of smelt, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. They are in serious decline and the entire system is on the verge of collapsing.
Governor Schwarzenegger’s nine billion dollar green-washing plan to bypass the delta floats in a quagmire of tattered 1980’s Peripheral Canal debates centered on ecological and economic viability, and construction timelines. His plan requires two additional large dams further clogging the arteries of an already over-clogged watershed system. The big question is whether domestic water supplies or food production will remain viable after the 10-15 year build-out period and who will be able to afford the food and energy? All of these things while the wild card, climate change, steadily plays it hand.
This ecological crisis coupled with water delivery shortfalls and reduction in food production affects the lives of everyone. How these synergies impact local community viability is this articles subject.
First, let’s consider the issue of food prices. Food prices are stuck like siamese twins to the price of corn and corn is tied to the price of water, and both to the cost of energy. All of these are tied to federal and state trade-distorting subsidies. Subsidies use taxpayer dollars to pay farmers and oil producers to sell their products for less than their actual costs. Taxpayers pay for food and oil twice, once at the market place and the other in their tax dollars that could be shifted to create stability in more stable, local economies.
Corn subsidies exceeded 10 billion last year, wheat subsidies total 21 billion since 1995, and oil subsidies are buried in a myriad of special interest programs including tax loopholes, processing, transportation, and infrastructure restoration subsidies. Subsidy estimates range as high as 45 billion a year and a fully costed gallon of unsubsidized fuel could cost as much as $12 per gallon.
Given this context, and aside from delta woes, corn has doubled in two years and wheat has tripled in price while we peel off a hundred dollar bill for a barrel of oil. We know why oil is going up, but what about the grains? Is it just the increased oil prices? The U.S. has been slowly converting corn crops into crop-based fuel. Corn to feed cars or people? In 2007, one fifth of the U.S.’s 80 million acre corn production provided fuel for only 4% of its fuel needs. Quick math reveals that if the entire crop were dedicated to fuel, it would only provide 20% of our fuel requirements and that much less food stores. Shortly, we’ll look at the chaos this would cause.
This trend is expected to rise as new processing plants are completed. When you tie corn commodities to rising oil prices, that commodity becomes more profitable as a fuel than as food product, the market elevates that commodity into the energy sector driving food prices with it. The calories in one tank full of crop-based fuel will feed one person for one year. There are no substitutes for food, yet plenty of alternatives for fuel. The shark-eyed market always rules.
Now, if you’re thinking lets go with corn-based fuels and substitute another crop for corn, one considers the food segment of the corn industry. Let’s tie corn into our diets. Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, clearly illustrates that relationship. As noted, corn is the largest mono-cultured crop in America.
This stream of corn produces much of the cheapest processed foods we buy at the market. One recognizes these corn-based derivatives as laboratory produced corn syrup in soda’s and fruit drinks. Salad dressing — corn flour — corn starch — hydrogenated corn oil — shortening — and nearly all additives in highly processed foods result from corn or a corn derivative. Cattle, pigs, chickens, farm produced salmon and tilapia have intense corn diets. An average fast food meal is at least 50% corn-based directly or indirectly. We’re a fast food nation built on cheap corn diets which accounts for the growing trend in obesity.
A quick review outlines a collapsing delta integral to food production, domestic water supplies and a healthy ecosystem. We have an industrial food system dependent on cheap corn which is dependent on cheap water and cheap energy that no longer exist. We have corn conversion into fuel driving up domestic food prices and reducing food stores. We have a huge subsidy system that, for the time being, holds the center, but just barely. At best, we have the governor’s plan that essentially continues the same business that caused the delta to fail in the first place, more dams and more diversions that would take at least ten years to build, setting the stage for far greater ecological failures throughout California’s watershed.
What’s breaking down faster then it can be propped up is the rising cost of ecological damage that neither subsidies nor economy of scales can prevent. That’s why small, local farms, although they out produce big agribusiness when environmental costs are factored in, can’t compete, the playing field based subsidies and economy of scales, favors big business and cuts small markets out of the picture.
If you’ve come this far, you’ve earned the finish line — saving the best for last. Historically, change was possible only with the presence of timing, will, and need merging into one path. Timing is present, yet will and need are quickly coming abreast to create the space needed for localism to take hold, compete, and stabilize local economies. That path holds the notion that if you can feed yourself, hold your water resources precious, return food materials that we don’t consume back into the soil, provide clothing and building materials from regional products, we can meet the challenges of climate change and rehabilitate our ailing ecosystem.
Hope is a good thing if your interest is marking time and relying on someone else to fix things. The real question is centered in the notion: “get busy living or get busy dying.” Localization efforts measure their progress by how many new acres of food producing land that can be converted. How many tons of vegetable waste they can convert into soil energy. How many new local businesses and local markets they can create using regional resources. How many trees they can plant in their watershed to hold soil and filter carbon from the air. How many streams and creeks we can make free of litter, debris, and livestock intrusion. How much stormwater runoff carrying toxic pollutants from streets and urban area’s that can be diverted into bioremediation ponds for cleaning. How much of our rainfall we can store in aquifers to feed domestic wells and support terrestrial and aquatic diversity. These are the true measurements of stability and localization. These are the measurements of living well in life.