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How long until you starve?

How long would you survive if starting right now, you could never buy groceries again? Consider how much worse that scenario would be if everyone you know was faced with the same question. It may have more relevance than you think. The food distribution system in industrialized nations has a complexity which baffles the mind. Thousands of suppliers coordinate with thousands of distributors to send food to millions of retailers for billions of consumers. But is there enough redundancy in the system to ensure the continued viability of commercially delivered food to your table? What if that incredibly complex system bottle necked or crashed? Would you literally starve to death?

It has been estimated that the average grocery store has less than a one week supply of food. We have all seen shelves stripped bare following hurricanes or other natural disasters. There is rarely starvation in those settings because aide pours in from unaffected surrounding areas. But what if the shortages were on a regional or national level?

What could possibly cause such a disruption?

At the very source of food farmers could stop producing food if it becomes unsafe or unprofitable to do so. Any large scale disaster effectively stops farming. A pandemic might shut down the production of food on a regional scale. An extreme example of natural disaster would have the same effect. A super volcano or large meteor strike would simply destroy every thing in the effected area including crops, farmers, and distributors or any food that might be produced or shipped through the effected area. Even a single nuclear detonation would effectively eliminate food production in the many miles polluted by windblown fall out. Nobody farms when they are putting their lives back together after disaster or fighting for survival against a pandemic.

More likely than those violent extremes are the natural fluctuations of weather. Most of us agree that weather extremes seem more common today than in decades past. Climate change (from whatever source) is evident. Drought, too much rain, excessive heat, or unseasonably cold may all prevent crops from germinating, kill seeds in the ground, stunt growth, delay harvest, or out right kill plants and animals. Our very lives depend on predictably mild weather.

But dangers to food production exist in even more mundane forms. The lowly honey bee is the most prolific and productive pollinator of crops. It is actually threatened with extinction by a new wave of parasites and bee diseases. In the same way that “avian flu” endangers the global bird population (and to a lesser extent humans) bee diseases have the potential to destroy that essential link in the production of food for human consumption. The famous Irish potato famine of the 1840s was the result of a naturally occurring plant disease that destroyed the potato crops. It alone killed thousands of Irish.

All these factors apply not only to domestically produced food, but to imported food as well. In addition, the importation may also be affected negatively by war, economic, and other political factors. The effect of scarce resources and impaired distribution systems for food gave rise to the need for ration cards and “victory gardens” in the 1940s.

Modern commercial farming is dependent on commercially produced hybrid seeds (which are not capable of reproducing true to form), commercially produced fertilizers, and especially abundant supplies of fuel. If the supplies of gasoline and diesel fuels are interrupted, commercial farming will stop. Think about that for a moment. Even changes in the market price of fuel affect the profitability of farming. If a farmer earns $1,000 per ton of food produced, but it will cost $1,000 more in fuel costs next season, why would he plant the next crop? All factors affecting oil production and distribution (let alone the growing scarcity of cheaply refined oil) affect the viability of commercial farming.

What about distribution?
From Wikipedia: Food distribution', a method of distributing (or transporting) food from one place to another, is a very important factor in public nutrition. Where it breaks down, famine, malnutrition or illness can occur. There are three main components of food distribution:
• Transport infrastructure, such as roads, vehicles, rail transport, airports, and ports.
• Food handling technology and regulation, such as refrigeration, and storage, warehousing.
• Adequate source and supply logistics, based on demand and need.

All of the factors affecting food production may also adversely affect food distribution. Anything that interrupts the movement of food by road or rail or sea could stop food from reaching your market. A trucking strike, a port closure, a breakdown in communication technology would have impacts. A spike in fuel prices may slow distribution as well, but the major danger I see is a terrorists’ electro magnetic pulse. There are theories which say that a single nuclear detonation at the correct altitude could blanket the continental United States with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) sufficient to bring down the power grid and destroy the electronic ignitions in most automobiles, trucks, and other machinery. Stop the machines and you stop food distribution. Such an EMP would not only cripple hundred of thousands of machines, but would wipe out the communication networks. Framers, distributors, and retailers would not be able to communicate. Business would literally stop when no telephones, faxes, or emails could take place. If the grid was down for two weeks, people would literally begin to starve and that doesn’t even address the water shortage that would occur when the pumps stop, let alone sanitation and security issues.

Some very intelligent people warn of an economic collapse on the scale of the Great Depression or worse. Hyper inflation is a reality in third world nations. It has happened in civilized and developed Europe several times in the last century as well. What if your paycheck loses 90% of its buying power in a month’s time? What if the markets lose faith in the imaginary value of currency? Such things have happened repeatedly in the past. If the store shelves are full but a can of soup costs $100, how long can you eat? How long until rioting empties the stores and stops distribution?

Most of the scenarios described above are less than likely. In fact, most will never happen. But they are possible. When you consider the combined likelihood of each small possibility you may feel that it is prudent to prepare.

Why be concerned?

Early in the twentieth century the United States weathered the Great Depression and the effects of two World Wars. Why be concerned now? 50 years ago it was common for rural households to keep a garden and home can the produce to be used until the next harvest. Many rural families kept a cow for milk, raised poultry for meat and eggs, or at least raised feeder pigs to butcher each fall. My family did all those things through the 1980s but just try to find ten homes keeping a family milk cow today!

Even five years ago, I was not terribly concerned with the challenge of finding livestock to raise my own steak, eggs, milk, butter, pork, chicken, etc. But a US government program to microchip and register every single domestic animal (including poultry) has since been undertaken. The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) proposes to ID and track every single food animal in America. This program will make it illegal to keep unregistered livestock. This may not only prompt some people to avoid keeping stock (who needs more paperwork?) but also creates the real potential for government abuse. NAIS is already in the pilot test phase. It is currently being carried out “on a voluntary basis” in several states. I’m not surprised if you’ve never heard of it. It is amazing how little press it is getting. Libertarians should be screaming warnings from the roof tops, but the media is ignoring it. If you haven’t heard about NAIS you can find info on in the Survivalblog archives and information on how to protest against it here: www.nonais.org

As late as the 1970s open pollinated (heirloom) seeds were common in backyard gardens. As you know, hybrid seeds are far more popular than open pollinated seeds today. Of the people you know who keep gardens, how many of them plant even half their crops from seeds they save themselves? The majority of the commercial seed stock worldwide is owned and distributed by just a handful of corporations? Those corporations are rapidly buying up the smaller seed companies on a global scale. A neighbor of mine owns a seed company that has bought twenty five competitors in the past decade! It would take very few corporate buyouts or mergers to put control of the majority of the world food supply under one board of directors. If the majority of seeds in circulation for producing grain crops are hybrids (and I think they are). We have no choice but to pay whatever they ask for next year’s seeds. If you let that sink in for a moment and you will realize a terrifying potential for the abuse of power.

What can you do?

As in preparing for any danger, emergency or shortage, you should provide for your basic needs in advance.

#1 Store a food and water reserve to see you through the initial crisis. If you are reading Survivalblog, chances are good that you already consider storage food as a basic preparation. Consider storing as much as you can up to the limit of food that you will consume before proper rotation prevents spoilage. The easiest way to acquire a reserve is to buy more of what you normally use when it is on sale at discounted prices. Instead of buying pasta at 99 cents per pound each week, buy a case when it is on sale at 33 cents per pound. Do the same for soup, rice, canned fruit, etc. In a short time you will not only have a reserve of food ready for use, but your overall food bill will DECREASE because you are paying less for the same amount of goods over time.

You may choose to buy food prepackaged for long term storage. These dehydrated and freeze-dried products offer shelf lives of five years and longer. One source for long term storage foods is Survivalblog advertiser Readymade Resources. I have done business in the past with Walton Feeds. They offer a reasonably priced basic year’s supply of food for under $1,000. A year’s supply for your family is not an unreasonable amount. FIVE years of the shelf stable basics for your family would not be too much. But even this would be a short term solution. Should the tyranny we are discussing last longer than whatever food you have stored you must be prepared to feed yourself beyond then.

#2 Open pollinated “heirloom” seeds and the ability to raise your own crops (at least “gardening”) are part of the answer. Buy your seeds now, practice planting, harvesting, storing the food, AND saving your own seeds to plant for the next season. It is worth noting that some varieties thrive in one climate or soil type, but fail miserably in other locations. It would be prudent to test the crops you hope to survive on. Ideally you could establish a large number of perennial crops such as Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, berry bushes, and fruit trees to harvest from in the future. Non-hybrid seeds are still available from many sources including Heirloomseeds , Seedsavers and Arkinstitute

#3 Don’t overlook unconventional sources of food. With a little research you should be able to recognize wild forage plants and prepare them for your table. Dandelions can be found almost anywhere including in urban areas from earliest spring through late fall. Their leaves can be eaten raw or boiled as vitamin laden greens. Even if you don’t care for the taste of the greens, the nectar bearing yellow flower is a slightly sweet wild treat. Every part of the wild onion (aka “ramps” or “leeks”) is edible (wild onions) but they may be hard to find in winter. One truly four season food is the cat-tail. It has edible shoots in spring, leaves and pollen in summer, and roots in autumn and winter (cat-tail). As an example of what a little knowledge can do to put food on your table, I recently saw “gobo” (aka burdock roots) for sale in large chain grocery store for $4 per pound.

#4 If keeping domestic livestock or poultry is an option that you would like to explore, I highly recommend Countryside and Small stock Journal. My public library carries ten years of back issues and I read every one before I became one of the contributing authors. Even if you can’t find it for free, check your newsstand or go to www.countrysidemag.com. But remember that the time to buy your flocks, herds, and the equipment to care for them, is long before you need to harvest.

#5 If keeping small stock isn’t practical you may resort to foraging for wild game or fishing. Snares are silent and extremely effective, but they do not last forever. You will need to learn how to build and rebuild them and have the materials available to do so. Buckshot’s camp is a great source for snares and materials as well as instructional videos. Leg hold traps are less effective (at least for me) but they last much longer than wire or cable snares. Fish traps can be an extremely effective way to gather protein silently as well. Many can be camouflaged as stream littering debris (such as discarded PVC pipe) if necessary. If you are not blessed to live in an area of natural abundance, you may wish to install and stock your own “decorative” fish pond well in advance of any time of need.

Many grains store well for months if they are stored in pest proof containers. To rodent proof your stored grains store them within steel drums, or galvanized garbage cans with secure lids. Speaking of storing animal feed, I once read an article by someone who worked in the management of a major pet food company. That author stated that in a life or death situation they would not hesitate to feed themselves on the company product. Yep, light weight, inexpensive dry kibble and water can sustain your life for weeks if you need it to. That’s just something to keep in mind when you store those big bags of nuggets for Rover.

I hope that the above will provoke enough thought to generate a few comments including tips that I haven’t thought of, because no matter how much we have stored against times of future need, it is primarily our knowledge and the ability to apply it that will help us to survive. That is why Survivalblog is such a resource – Thanks JWR!

And what if nothing happens? What if none of the dangers described above materialize in the near future? Are your efforts wasted? They are not! Because even absent disaster, you will still need to eat! In a best case scenario you will use the tips above to save money, eat a healthier, and sleep with more peace of mind.

God bless you and yours,
GM.