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Wheat is the new oil

Get ready for Peak Grain: The global cupboard is one major disaster away from bare

Brace yourself for crises at the cash register. Major price hikes for food are coming, as Peak Grain joins the lineup of life-changing events such as Peak Oil and Peak Water. Unless this year’s harvest is unexpectedly different from six out of the last seven, the world’s ever-decreasing number of farmers will not produce enough staple grains to feed its ever-increasing number of people.

Amber waves of grain: another endangered species?

Quite a shift from obsessing about obesity, isn’t it?

Last month, enviro analyst Lester Brown of the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute examined U.S. Department of Agriculture figures and issued a shocking warning. The international cupboard, or “reserve” of grains (wheat, rice, and corn, for example), he showed, is now at its lowest point since the early 1970s.

He wasn’t the first to go down this path. He follows by a few months Darrin Qualman, researcher with Canada’s National Farmers Union, one of the few farm orgs that think agriculture policy should be about feeding people, not finding ways to raise prices by getting rid of farm surpluses.

While there’s been a crisis of quiet desperation over at least a decade for the 15,000 people who die each day from hunger-related causes, shortages and high prices are about to become everyone’s problem.

Turns out that if massive disaster strikes, there’s enough in the global cupboard to keep people alive on basic grains for 57 days. Two months of survival food is all that separates us from mass starvation due to drought, plagues of locusts, and other pests, or the wars and violence that disrupt farming, all of which are more plentiful than food.

And since the World Trade Organization prohibits government intervention that keeps any items off the free-trade ledger, there’s no law that says Canadians, or any other people, get first dibs on their own food production.

To put the 57 days in historical perspective, the world price for wheat went up six-fold in 1973, the last time reserves were this low. Wheat prices ricocheted through the food supply chain in many ways, from higher prices for cereal and breads eaten directly by humans to the cost of milk and meat from livestock fed a grain-based diet.

If such a chain reaction happens this year, wheat could fetch $21 a bushel, about six times its current price. It might cost even more, given that there are now two other pressing demands for grains that were less forceful during the 70s.

Those happy days predated modern fads such as using grains for ethanol, now touted as an alternative to petroleum fuels for cars, and predated the factory barns that bring grains to an animal’s stall, thereby eliminating grazing on pasture grasses.

University ethics classes and church elders can ponder the moral dilemmas imposed on the wealthy when they choose fuel and meat while others starve.

Historians will also recall that 1970s food prices went up because of price hikes for oil, contributing to the runaway inflation that defined the decade’s economic challenge. That experience shows that seemingly small blips in food reserves and availability can lead to major shocks in the economy and society.

The drop in world food reserves back then was also accompanied by trends from which the world has yet to fully recover. Legacies include traumatic famines across Africa, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, the emergence of hard-right politics in conventional parties as governments prepared for a crackdown on unions that were blamed for the inflationary spiral, and tight money policies that doubled unemployment levels.

Even modest price changes can deliver a big wallop this time, too, especially in a world that’s already suffering from crisis overload. For a third of the world’s people who subsist on less than $2 a day, even a few pennies increase in food prices can make a life-and-death difference.

There will be an echo of that desperation in wealthy North America, where about 10 percent of the population — mostly single-parent families and immigrants — faces some form of food insecurity. If looming food shortages make it onto the radar of government officials charged with safeguarding public health, a raft of new policy issues will need to be addressed.

A big question mark has to be put next to ethanol fuels, except those made from crop wastes. Food sovereignty — the right of a people to set their own food policies — emerges as a precondition of food security, and should put the world free-trade agenda on hold.

Planning measures that prohibit urban sprawl onto good farmland — Ontario, Canada’s greenbelt is an excellent example — become axiomatic. So do government incentives such as guaranteed minimum prices for farmers producing basic foods, the same kinds of guarantees now given to self-regulating professions such as doctors and lawyers, as well as apprenticed tradesmen, all of whom would have problems working if they didn’t eat.

And so do measures that promote food production in cities — not as a healthy hobby, but as a public-health essential. A garden on top of every garage, a veggie stew in every pot: We will see this and more in the years ahead.