Friday, July 27, 2007

food sovereignty and the collapse of nations

artist unknown

I don’t speak Russian so I’ll have to wait until November when the Brookings Institute is finished translating ‘Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia’ into English. This book, by economist and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, chronicles the end of the Soviet Empire, but I guess you got that from the title. Did you catch that part about the author being an economist? Good because that comes up later. Now as I said, I don’t speak Russian so you might be asking yourself, “What’s this guy going to do, try and review a book he can’t even read?” To which my response is No. Well, sort of.

The Christian Science Monitor is currently carrying an article by columnist David R. Francis that talks a bit about the book and offers some views by other notables about the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. I thought I’d share some ideas about this discussion of alternative viewpoints concerning the end of Soviet system. I want to state up front that I am not and don’t claim to be an expert on the Soviet Union, its politics or prevoius system of government. I think though that this ‘fresh eyes’ approach at examining some of the factors that contributed to its collapse might allow me to offer an insight. Or maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. In any case I share the following about how this yet-to-be translated book and its review might point towards something we here in America should pay much more attention to.

Mr. Francis sets the stage for us by summarizing the author’s suggestions about the run up to the Soviet collapse.

What happened, states Mr. Gaidar, is that Soviet grain production stagnated between 1966 and 1990. Meanwhile, 80 million people moved from farms to cities. New Soviet output of oil and gas was not sufficiently expanded to provide the hard currency needed to buy grain abroad. Eventually, the Soviets had to borrow foreign money to buy grain.

It seems that Mr. Gaidar is basically saying that the collapse happened because a large portion of the population of the Soviet Union moved from the country to the city and stopped growing their own grain. But what is even more interesting to me is that that the author of the article himself seems not to make the connection or just skips over it in a bit of conditioning and goes on to blame the collapse on economics- on the inability of the Soviets to feed themselves not because there weren't enough people growing grain in that country but because of their inability to *buy* enough grain from other people to feed themselves because of decreasing oil and natural gas revenues. The idea that the Soviet collapse was due in part to the fact that the Soviet Union gave up on its capacity for food self sufficiency (food sovereignty) in an effort to pursue industrialization seems to elude the article’s author. And then from there implications for the continuation of the American empire and parallels about our own situation regarding food sovereignty started to pour out into my mind.

Here in the United States about 40% of our population farmed for a living around the turn of the 20th century. By 1950 that number had dropped to about 12%. Today fewer than 2% provide all our food. The other 98% of us work at a job which provides us money which allows us to buy food. We have given up our own food sovereignty as a people and instead rely almost entirely on an economic system to provide us with meals. To put it another way we have given up on growing our own food locally in order to have time to make money so that we can buy all our food from a shrinking number of people who grow it far away. And that is all well and good and our economic system is very different from that of Soviet Russia. We have capitalism and they had communism. I get that. But is our capitalist economy impervious to trouble? We’ve had our share of recessions, depressions and economic bubbles. We’re in the midst of one of the latter right now. Some argue it is beginning to burst so I’d say that at least the idea that our economic system is unsinkable would sound silly to anyone who’s heard of the Titanic. No ship sails forever unimpeded.

So should we be pleased that the USSR shifted from a rural populace towards a more urban population who were unable to feed themselves amidst economic hard times and therefore left their leaders no choice but to consent to revolution in the face of a starving population and no way to pay for food? Maybe. But that is an oversimplification of the history of another country I am unwilling to make. And it really isn’t one of the questions I am especially interested in answering anyway. Here’s another question, if the economic system in the United States of America, an economic system based on endless growth, runs up against a depletion of resources that physically slows or stops its ability to grow, will the U.S. face a similar collapse because our people, like those in the Soviet Union, have given up the capacity to feed ourselves directly (fewer jobs = less food)? Is that a possible road of revolution? I’m not talking about a failure based on some sort of conceptual schism between capitalism and communism. I’m talking about a failure due to an increasing resource scarcity that chokes the life out of growth economics. This has always been my beef with most economists. They seem not to recognize the limits- the physical limits of the natural world. I understand that in era of unprecedented growth and materialist prosperity, many people have been made to feel as if any and all is possible, but there is only so much of everything. Natural resources are limited. That means natural resources aren’t infinitely available. That means limits. That means infinite growth in our finite system is impossible even if short term growth seems to suggest that it is inevitable. Sorry to wander off on such a rant- let me put it this way. There are limits to growth. Those who fail to recognize this fact do so at the peril of us all.

But back to the question at hand, when (not if) the American economy of growth falters, as all such economies are bound to do, how will the 98% of non-farmers be able to buy bread? Are we in for the rough ride of revolution when we are unable to buy food? Another question- Will we be more willing to overthrow our corporate masters when they are unable to feed us? And another- Do we really need to wait for that to happen?

What would happen if the people of the United States of America made a preemptive strike not against another nation but against the choke hold of industrial agriculture and perilous position in which it places us? Perhaps we have already given up our freedom of choice, real choice over how we live our lives and have settled on the offered option of crappy supermarket tomatoes for which we pay the price of working from behind a desk! We grow fewer than 10% of the tomato varieties cultivated in the United States in the year 1900. 70% of the food in our grocery stores is processed; much of it heavily laden with fat or refined sugar or both. In a country where most of our congressional representatives support- are about to pass right now- a farm bill that rewards the makers of cheap junk food to the detriment of those whole grow our fruits and our vegetables, can we really say that we have a choice in what we eat? How it’s grown? What chemicals are sprayed on it? Would such a revolution not also give us back real choice?

Of course we have an alternative. We can, as a nation, turn away voluntarily from the industrialization of agriculture by rejecting a culture of consumption and promoting a culture of creation- not factory farming but local food needs met locally. We can reject the greed of materialism in favor of the freedom and stability of agricultural self sufficiency and local interdependency- the battle cry can be Food Sovereignty! And we can do it in advance of any possible economic troubles because of speculation, liquidation, inflation, or any other pseudoscientific notions about how wealth changes hands. We can begin again to base our society on providing our own needs and the needs of our communities.

This sort of democratization of support systems could lead in turn to a stronger democratic system of governance with the population ruling over themselves not being provided for by a few agribizness corporations. While writing this essay I shared the rough draft with a few friends, several of whom said something to the effect of, “The Soviet government gave the people their food but here in the U.S. we get our own.” To which I responded with strong disagreement. We do not get our own food in this country. It is shelved for us by grocery store stock boys. Transported to us by truckers. Grown a thousand and half miles away. Harvested by migrant workers who are paid poverty level wages or worse- much of it is grown under contract by corporations whose practices destroy local communities in other countries and leads to the devastation of our global environment and the further destabilization of more folks angry with America. Just because we *buy* our food at the grocery store doesn’t mean we have any real control over how we fed our families. What we have is the illusion of control and in this regard we might be worse off than the Soviets in terms of susceptibility.

A population that can feed itself can express power over a ruling minority not through violence but by withdrawing their dependency from the system of inadvertent indentured servitude by which corporatization and globalization have enslaved all of us who depend on far away others for what we can grow in our own front yards or buy from the besieged family farmer down the road.

Any way you slice it, our ability to feed ourselves is important in establishing any attempt at addressing the crises current facing humankind. Rapid resource depletion, population migration, global climate change, peak energy, a pandemic illness or any combination of these converging calamities could lead to more conflict and the possible collapse of our current system of civilization. Facing these issues can best be handled through a collaborative effort involving real education and a democratic approach towards problem solving. Personally I think a re-ruralization and a swift move towards self sufficiency, along with a return to local interdependency, could go a long way towards mitigating our problems and stabilizing our democratic goals and aims. We could learn something from the Soviets. Not the notion that institutional communism is a bad idea- we already know that- but the idea that giving up our ability to grow local food makes us more susceptible to the falling debris likely during any economic collapse. Can we use this insight to regain control over our food and our governing institutions before the real want of limits sets in? That is of course a question I can not answer but I hope so. I really do.


Refocus our eating habits. Adopt The Bullseye Diet.

For more insight on lessons to be learn from Post-Soviet Russia I highly recommend a marvelous read on the subject, Dimitri Orlov’s ‘Post-Soviet Lesson For A Post-American Century.’

The article I referenced from The Christian Science Monitor, by David R. Francis, is here.

Preorder ‘Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia

Author's Note: From the time I started this essay until the time I posted it, the Dow Jones Industrial average dropped 450 points. Why work to buy it when we can grow it? Why run that risk?


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. I plan on emailing this to several people I know. My brother is starting to do financial/insurance advising through Primerica. He was here today with his trainer, who was asking us how much money we would need to be financially independent. I was trying to explain to him (and my wife) that if you are able to provide your necessities for yourself or get them from local sources, you don't need vast sums of money to be independent. They didn't seem to get it. They couldn't wrap their heads around the concept of not depending on MONEY to BUY the things you need. Again, fantastic post. Keep it up.
- Mike Lorenz



Ditto anonymous. What a great way to get introduced into your blog.

Now how do I get in touch? I'd love you to be involved with a green project I'm helping put together.

Email me at kristopher (at)

Homebrewlibrarian said...

I was just commenting on the difficulty of growing your own food in Alaska at the Casaubon's Book blog. If anyone is interested in reading her "The Time is Now" entry plus the comments (including mine), go to:

I had not realized that so few people grow so much of America's food supply. Personally, I've been doing the eat-local-eat-CSA-eat-organic route for the last few years. I'll admit it was a lot easier to do in Wisconsin than it is in Alaska. I've subscribed to the two CSA's available - one up the road about 50 miles and the other one in Washington State (they have an awesome distribution system). But the growing season is very short and not conducive to all types of plants. Corn, for instance, does not grow unless it's in a greenhouse, nor do most of the nightshade family - tomatos, peppers, eggplant - although potatoes do rather well. There was an attempt by the State at growing barley but the season is entirely too short and I'm guessing wheat production would be an issue as well. Fruit production is limited to mostly indigenous berries although the Fruit Tree Growers Association has been working to find apple trees that thrive here. I've heard they're now looking into some varietals of pears. The good news is that cool weather vegetables - cabbage, kohlrabi, carrots, beets, radishes, kale, cauliflower and broccoli - all do well. Zucchini does exceptionally well up here with all the summer daylight. The problem is having the ability to start plants well before winter is over since the last frost is in mid May and the first frost is early September. The two CSAs I subscribe to have large greenhouse space. I suspect the one in Alaska is heated for their plant starts so they probably end up sinking quite a bit of money into some sort of heating oil. Their profit margin is extremely tight and I wonder at what point they'll either have to give up the CSA to just produce the food they need to survive or throw in the towel. Many of the what few farms we've had up here in the last 10 years have shut down and the families moved out of state.

Oh, just for the record, I live in an apartment building and the property owner is disinclined to let me dig up the property for a garden. And while there are community garden spots in town, they aren't near where I live or work and the waiting lists to get access to them are incredibly long.

Certainly I agree that food sovereignty is crucial but I also think that most of the money we wage slaves earn goes towards our housing. Housing is quite expensive in Alaska and most people are not skilled enough to build their own cabins out in the wilderness. I often wonder if there's a correlation between housing costs and obesity because junk food is cheaper than the healthier stuff and when you're paying out the nose for your housing, something else has to give.

For those who live near local farms, GET YOUR FOOD FROM THEM. Find out the local supply for eggs and milk and meat. Cultivate relationships with these people. If you can't grow your own, help out those near you who do.


Bedouina said...

I've been putting off joining a CSA - we have plenty of 'em in the Bay area. Why? I dunno. Don't want to waste food - what if I don't feel like cooking what they send, or we get busy and eat out, or something? Lame reason. Lately I've been toying with the possibility.

Seeing CSAs as part of food sovereignity for the country tips the balance for me.

Also, in my urban Oakland neighborhood, built as a garden suburb a hundred years ago, people are indeed raising chickens, keeping bees, and growing their own food. I don't feel like I can handle poultry yet (I am overwhelmed as it is) but it makes sense to keep in touch with those neighbors who can.

What I want is a little goat - she can eat the blackberry bramble that's taking over the back fence, and we can milk her and make Goat Yogurt. Mmmmm. But I won't do this unless/until the disasters you all predict actually begin to happen. In the meantime, I'm feeling pulled between the obligations of a middle class mother (drive the kids to swim lessons, buy plastic stuff for birthday party; use a cake mix because they don't sell Hershey's cocoa anymore and I can't cope with a more complicated scratch recipe, etc.) and the attempt to dial down our consumption (which is on the low side anyway)

nulinegvgv said...

Thank you Mike. I really appreciate your praise. Thanks for continuing to read.

Kristopher thanks for reading. Unfortunately I am too busy to responsibly commit to any other projects at the moment but best of luck with your new venture.

Kerri, I spent the better part of two summers in Juneau in the late 90’s. In fact I think I left my heart there so if you see it keep it safe for me. I know that Southeast Alaska has a special set of limitations when it comes to growing food- limited flat land and limited sunlight & a cool climate much of the year. But during the summer months you have an extraordinary amount of sun shine and a lot of moisture. Try an internet search for ‘Alaskan record vegetables’ and I think you’ll find that there are people growing an amazing amount of food in AK. It is true that you might need to find ways to extend your season. Also the Tlingit, Hiada and other peoples native to that region did eat a lot from the ocean. They were largely hunter/gathers and I imagine a low energy lifestyle in that part of the world would require a return, at least in part, to that sort of diet.

Bedouina, You bring up a couple of issues I’d like to comment on. Concerning CSA membership you wrote,

“Don't want to waste food - what if I don't feel like cooking what they send, or we get busy and eat out, or something? Lame Reason.”

But it isn’t a lame reason. In theory it’s easy, you just cook with the food you get from the CSA. But in practice it’s something else entirely. I’ve come to realize that if I’m going to support relocalication of the way we eat in America I am going to have to work with people to change the way they cook and the way they think about cooking. Let me stress that when I say, ‘work with people,’ I am first and foremost talking about myself and my family. Most of us, me included, have been raised to think in exactly the manner you describe, treating meal time as an after thought. I think a change in mindset will be at the heart of any real change in how we feed ourselves. Instead of deciding on a whim that we will eat Mexican cuisine or that we will go out to eat, eating locally requires a different approach. Have you ever gone to the fridge and looked inside to see what was available for dinner? That is the sort of flexible mentality required to eat more locally. And it doesn’t have to be a drag. From our CSA this week I received a wonderful brandywine tomato that I know will be delicious. But I was thinking about having something else for lunch today until I noticed this particular tomato has a bad spot on it. I know that means it will be unusable within a day or so. I’ve decided to go ahead and have a tomato sandwich for lunch. Sure I’ve given up my option of eating whatever else I want but I promise you my tomato sandwich will taste excellent! It’s not about giving up on excellent food, it’s about recognizing reasonable limits. ‘This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader’ by Joan Dye Gussow makes the case as well as anyone that a return to seasonal, local eating can be just as rewarding in terms of taste as it is in the satisfaction of knowing that you are making a good decision in terms of what is best for your health, the health of our nation and our planet. Like most of the other changes coming in response to peak oil and climate change, it’s first and foremost about how we think.

You wrote,

"But I won't do this unless/until the disasters you all predict actually begin to happen. In the meantime, I'm feeling pulled between the obligations of a middle class mother (drive the kids to swim lessons, buy plastic stuff for birthday party; use a cake mix because they don't sell Hershey's cocoa anymore and I can't cope with a more complicated scratch recipe, etc."

Again I sympathize with you. My wife is with our daughter at a birthday party right now and I’ll bet you dollars for donuts that the birthday cake wasn’t baked by the host or that it was grown with local grain. But want I really want to address in your comment above was the idea that we can wait until the disasters begin to happen. I can argue that they are already beginning. 10% of Americans have trouble feeding their families now! You and I are obviously one of the lucky ones not in that category but I doubt that a rush towards disaster for more of us will happen over night. Instead I would bet on a slide. When will it directly affect my family? Yours? I do not know. But I am aware of the fact that making changes to the way we live, the way we cook, the way we get our food, the way we grow it, these changes take time. Do not wait until the threat of hunger is at your door or even down the street before making change. I can tell you from having the experience of change that it takes a while. I have been actively involved in such a change for quite a while and I am far from my goals, not because I don’t try hard but because modifying well established norms takes time. Don’t feel like you need to start growing all of your own food right now. That is an unreasonable goal, but go ahead and begin the journey. Just walking along an alternative path will put you in a better position to handle coming change and to help others who might come later to the game. It’s all about movement. Thanks for you comment.

Homebrewlibrarian said...

Aaron, next time I'm in Juneau I'll look around for your heart. Does it like beer? If so, I'll likely find it over at the Alaskan Brewing Company. It would be in good hands there :-)

Actually, I live in Anchorage and there's not nearly the moisture here as Southeast. But, you're absolutely correct about giant vegetables. That's my favorite exhibit at the State Fair (that and all the chickens). But it's not about how big you can grow them but how many you can grow in a really short time. Especially if you can't have your own garden and don't have access to a greenhouse.

And this leads me to comment to Bedouina... the choice to subscribe to a CSA has to include the fact that you aren't choosing the food you will receive. Which requires you to put more effort into the meals you prepare. Since I joined the two I'm in now, I've stopped thinking of meals in terms of what would be interesting and then running to the store to get the missing parts to thinking about meals in terms of the foods I have in front of me. It really can be a big shift and it takes a while before it turns into a habit. It would be the same thing if you grew your own food. You eat what you have which might mean that you don't prepare Thai cuisine on a whim. Not unless you planted Thai basil, eggplants and so forth at the beginning of the season.

If I weren't a wage slave, I would garden, forage, work deals with others to barter for various food stuffs and cook all during each day. So instead I work each of those things separately into my day (except for the gardening part - that's why I joined the CSAs). It's not easy but it's what I can do.

I'm very slowly developing a network or community where we each have something to contribute mostly in terms of food. I used to have a trade arrangement where I would trade homemade beer for homemade organic pizza. Everybody won on that one. I also traded beer for eggs and that worked well too. One of my coworkers and I are beginning an organic vegetables for salmon and halibut trade (I have the vegies and she has the fish). So if joining a CSA or growing your own food isn't feasible, start up some trades. I've gotten into making kefir and will look to trade kefir or kefir grains for other foods in the near future. The cool thing about trades is that they can be with anyone. And it helps build relationships which is always a good thing.

It's never to late to take control of your food supply. But you don't have to move to a farm and do it all yourself either.


Anonymous said...

You're right on the money about not waiting to make changes until it becomes obvious. My wife and in-laws (with whom we live) are very dubious, to say the least, about my take on world events and what kind of lifestyle I think we should be living. As a result, I'm having to make Peak Oil/Climate Change preparations much more gradually than I'd like to, but at least it's something. And provided that the whole big show doesn't come crashing down tommorrow (which it might), making gradual changes will help ease your transition into a post-peak lifestyle.

I just started reading Eliot Coleman's "Four Season Harvest". It's all about what techniques and crops you can use to grow fresh organic produce all year long. The guy lives in Maine, so he'll probably have some tips that would go a long ways in Alaska. Best of luck.
- Mike Lorenz

Anonymous said...

Hello Aaron,

Great subject for post... much for us to think about.

Here are two additional links:

A speech of Yegor Gaidar which develops his arguments about the collapse of the Soviet Union has been posted at the American Enterprise Intstitute:
The Soviet Collapse" Grain and Oil

You mention Dmitri Orlov in your suggested readings. Dmitry has an excellent study online: Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US

Best wishes,
Bart Anderson
Energy Bulletin