Archives for the month of: November, 2011

Peanut Butter Pinched in Heat-and-Drought Sandwich; Jam ‘Still Tastes Great On Its Own’: Jam Producers 

Alex Perala
The Reckoner

The dismal tide of runaway climate change has washed yet another harbinger of doom upon humanity’s shores: The price of peanut butter is set to increase dramatically, spurring tough-talking journalists to ask a panicked public, ‘How would you deal with a peanut butter price jump?

How could this happen?

For starters, there has been a horrible drought in Texas – maybe you’ve heard? Well Texas produces a lot of peanuts. And Georgia produces even more, and it was affected by the drought as well. It’s the largest peanut producer in America, and this past summer it, too, endured record-breaking heat and a terrible dearth of rain.

One Georgian farmer, a three-decade veteran of the field, commented on the particular severity of the drought: “It was so dry you didn’t have any moisture in the soil to make the seed even rot. It just laid there in the soil. I’ve never seen that before.”

So farmers are suffering due to the catastrophic effects of a warming climate – we’ve heard all about that kind of thing before. But this is also going to affect consumers in a significant way: Americans will already have to face devastating peanut butter price hikes this year, and Kraft Canada plans a price increase of 35% on its peanut butter at the beginning of 2012.

“We’re committed to continuing to offer consumers the great taste and high quality Kraft peanut butter they enjoy and thus the increase,” one Kraft employee said through gritted teeth and with a forced smile, beads of flop-sweat forming on her twitching brow.*

Of course, this offers little consolation for the hard-working parents who are toiling away to provide their children with the lives they deserve. What about them? What about their children? Won’t someone please think of the children? The impact of this price increase on families could be devastating.

“We probably won’t be happy about it but we will still buy it,” one mother told a reporter in a discussion about the crisis. “As picky as children are with food, you will buy what they eat.”

Indeed. But how long can such a situation be tolerated? And how do you measure the true cost of such a disaster – how do you measure the sorrow, the pain? It adds up, and it isn’t peanuts.

Oh, btw, there’s going to be mass extinction in the oceans “within a single generation” – you can learn more about that here.

*The visage of Ms Stephanie Minna Cass is entirely the product of speculation on the part of the author.

Protesters in Tunis

Alex Perala
The Reckoner

There was a funny incident recently in a shopping center in Misrata. The mall has a walk-in freezer used by its resident restaurants to store perishable foods, but for a short time the freezer was used to store the corpse of the former autocrat of the country.

The corpse was that of Muammar Gaddafi. It was shirtless and bloody, lying on a quotidian mattress that was itself blood-stained where its plastic covering had been peeled off. A large contingent of Libyans had risen up against the dictator, causing him to flee across the country. Eventually he was found hiding in a drainage pipe.

This was one of the most dramatic consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, an upwelling of popular dissent against autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East. Western media pundits all agree that the Arab Spring was caused by Twitter and Facebook, but there are some secondary factors that are worth a look, too. One of them is bread.

It’s interesting to note that grain prices soared in 2007 – 2008, and that the Arab Spring was sparked in December of 2010, when a young, poor fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi grabbed hold of an electrified wire in an act of protest against the Tunisian state. Soon after that, Egypt became the focal point of the Arab Spring, when protesters began a peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square. Egypt’s bread prices had risen 37% during the 2007-2008 grain price spike, and the country saw general food price inflation increase by 18.9% until its people ousted their own dictator.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that revolution followed on the heels of a food crisis, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend it isn’t. Why did grain prices increase so much in the first place? A variety of factors were responsible. Meat consumption was on the rise in growing markets like China and India, with many crops going to livestock; many farmers were opting to produce crops for use as biofuels rather than food; market speculation on food commodities added some volatility to the mix. But also: declines in water tables, unpredictable weather events, prolonged and severe droughts. Climate change. It wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one.

It seems as though the effect that climate change would have on crops was considerably underestimated in past scientific speculation. Previously, it was thought that increased carbon in the atmosphere might actually help carbon-hungry vegetation to grow; and the effects of severe weather were not given adequate consideration. Now, though, we’re realizing how sensitive crops are to seemingly minor changes in climate. For example, years ago Californian farmers began to notice that a more rapid springtime snowmelt was robbing their usually fertile valleys of a much-need source of water during the summer months – a product of a relatively minor change in climate. And blossoms can open too soon for migrating insects to pollinate them, and trees that need cool nights to recover between harvests may produce weaker crops – again, a small increase in temperature can throw off a delicate balance.

And when such delicate balances are disrupted to the point that crop yields are significantly reduced, then the stage is set for social unrest. New research suggests a firm, empirical link between food insecurity and civil disruption, and while there is still a greater focus in the research on factors like commodity speculation, agro-fuel and increasing overhead, the specter of climate change nevertheless looms over all.

So what’s next? Who knows. But early this year China experienced a significant drought, and later Russia endured the hottest summer on its 130-year record – along with a combination of drought and wildfires that destroyed a fifth of its wheat crop, prompting the state to ban its export. And heat and drought arrived in Europe this summer, too. The period of March through May in France was the driest the country had seen in fifty years, and the hottest in over a century.

All that heat could add up, and who knows who else might end up in a freezer.

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