Here I am, a lifelong resident of one of the premier agricultural regions of the world, whose family has farmed in the state since 1868, and I didn’t get it.
You would have thought that eating at least three times a day for 50 years would have stirred me to take an interest in how that food got on my plate.
But no. I just ate.
It took a quote from an aristocratic British farmer (a member of the House of Lords, no less) to get me to grasp not just the centrality of food production in our lives — but how fragile this system is.
“Nine meals away from anarchy” is how Lord Cameron of Dillington described Britain in 2007.
The first time I came across this statement I wasn’t even sure I knew what he was talking about. But the inspiration for his disquieting comment comes, in part, from our side of the pond. From the experience of Hurricane Katrina.
Our grocery stores (where most of us do all of our ‘hunting and fishing and farming’) operate on what is called ‘just in time delivery.’ Your average grocery outlet carries just three days of inventory — the equivalent of ‘nine meals.’ Any disruption to that delivery schedule and our food security is at risk.
Hurricane Katrina, Lord Cameron declared, provided a textbook case of the social disruption that occurs with a sudden calamity. The first day (meals 1-3), people rush to the grocery store to stock up. The second day (meals 4-6), those who can afford it go back and buy whatever’s left. And the third day (meals 7-9), when the larder’s empty and people are hungry, the social order begins to break down.
Or, in Lord Cameron’s words, “there will be rats, mayhem, and maybe even murder.”
Scarcity does ugly things to a population. “The better angels of our nature” (to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase) tend not to fare very well when people are hungry and afraid. Our first thoughts are for ourselves and our own, and conflict invariably erupts with our neighbors over competition for resources. The Pentagon, in fact, already is bracing for wars over food and water — and not just in the poor nations of the globe. As Lord Cameron warns, everyone who eats is vulnerable to food insecurity. It’s a world we want to avoid if we can help it.
So to bring this all back home, we need to be asking where that food on our grocery store shelves comes from.
And the answer for more than 90 percent of it is: from somewhere other than Nebraska.
Agricultural powerhouse that we are, barely a tenth of what we grow in the state is consumed locally. The other nine-tenths is exported to out-of-state markets.
It hasn’t of course always been that way. My father assures me that, growing up on the farm in Johnson County in the 1930s, 95 percent of their diet came from within 5 miles of where they lived. They had to buy their coffee and sugar. And they never had fresh strawberries in December. But they ate three times a day and they could tell you where their food came from — because they either grew it themselves or got it from a neighbor.
That kind of food localization is something we need to get back to, particularly those of us living in towns and cities where the single-largest irrigated crop in America is grown: our lawns.
We can’t eat the grass they’re made of. They sap enormous amounts of water, fossil fuels and arable land. But we religiously nurture them in our yards, while the average bite of food on our plate travels 1,500 miles or more.
This is a recipe for disaster. And with the increased risk that extreme weather events like drought and flood pose to agriculture because of climate change, we frankly have no choice but to develop a more stable — and locally based — food system.
In April of this year, yet another British government official, Agriculture Minister David Heath, warned of coming food shortages and exhorted Britons to replace their lawns with gardens and “dig for survival.”
Call me overly cautious, but I’m taking the minister’s advice. I don’t like missing meals. It makes me crabby.