April 16, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

What could be better than sliced bread?

It is not trivial that ‘earning our daily bread’ is synonymous, even in the 21st century, with the most fundamental economic elements: do something so that you can eat. The only societies that don’t measure their success in terms of their daily bread are the societies that are equally dependent on other grains or starches: corn in Mexico, potatos in Latinoamerica, and of course rice in Asia.
If we are conscious at all, we hear the distant reports of food riots in Egypt (only a few dead, so far) and the Philippines as background noise, the creaking adjustments of an increasingly interdependent economy to the new imperatives of climate change, population explosion and burgeoning demand, plus crops for energy vs food. We are not, and cannot be touched by such events. Or so goes the ‘conventional wisdom’. For that, read 3 monkeys who are deaf, dumb, and blind to the emerging global order.
A recent article in the San Francisco Indymedia: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/04/12/18492403.php asks how far the US is from food riots. Comments include the perennial debate about eating meat (as it is so much more resource intensive than grains) and the role of biofuels (which divert land from food in favour of inputs for McCars). Naturally, (a word that needs unwraping in this context) we would not expect the major media outlets in the US, including their public broadcaster, to canvass such issues. We might still hear about it in Australia, but only the wonks who fetishise Aunty would be paying attention. Well, that’s me, and I hope it’s you, too.
How is it that all of a sudden, within the last 6 months, food security has mushroomed on the radar screen? People have always been starving, somewhere, for multiple reasons. But now the big global institutions, such as the IMF and the UN, are warning about the implications from the 33-odd countries that are on the brink of severe social disruption as a result of rising food prices.
Part of the answer can be found in 2 articles published in New Scientist (April 05). One was about pandemics, and how they can shut down multiple systems quickly. One problem is that in closely coupled systems, where every change impacts on the other elements, collapse can be triggered by small events, like the absence of a key worker due to illness. Another dimension is that in a system with little redundancy, there is little margin for failure. The tightly coupled systems that now provide our food are designed to have no slack, as that is costly. That means just in time delivery and small stockpiles. For sure, global stockpiles of essential foods are smaller now than ever before.
That means less wastage due to rotting and insects, but it also means less flexibility in a situation where supplies might falter. For these reasons, highly complex, advanced societies like our are more vulnerable to severe shocks than more simple societies where food production and consumption are linked more directly but less efficiently.
Consider New Orleans, but perhaps you’d rather not. I’ve just started The Shock Doctrine, by the brilliant Naomi Klein. She argues that the Milton Friedman approach of waiting until disaster hits, and then plunging in with privitisation, has been applied to set up ‘voucher’ schools there. The destruction of public housing was openly described as an opportunity – not for better public housing, but for new condos.
The theme is that severe shocks to our social and economic and environmental systems are being met with a tightening of the noose of economic concentration, rather than a re-think about how best to avoid future disasters or re-orient the systems towards sustainability.
Back to the basics of bread. For our own western European derived society, the importance of bread is as basic as ‘lord’ and ‘lady’. The lady was the ‘bread-kneader’ and the lord was the bread keeper, and therefore the master of the household. (For more detail on this, see the site of the cunning Canadian linguist: billcasselman.com)
I conclude that food security will always be central to political power. The world has not really moved beyond this. This realisation was triggered when late last year I read the classic Food in History by Reay Tannahill. The evolution of ways to prepare basic grains for sustenance was eye-opening. In future blogs I will reveal to you how I intend to deal with these distant, yet daunting threats to the fundamentals of our existence. In the meantime, perhaps we should revive a few recipes for wheat chaff soaked in soured sheep milk.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 2:45 pm | Comments Off on What could be better than sliced bread? |
Filed under: Health

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