Bread-making: Perspectives on Self Sufficiency

Well, I’d like to say I’ve discovered the joys of bread-making, or baking (as its more commonly known). While I made a “passable” (I could eat it) loaf of white bread with flour and store-bought yeast, I have yet to make a loaf with self-grown yeast (oh yes, I’m trying). Two weeks, three loaves, two failures (the one success being the store yeast). Today I was thinking about my quest for bread self-sufficiency and was thinking about the bread-making process. It really starts outside, in the ground, on a field, where wheat is grown and harvested, then milled into flour, and then made into bread. I was then thinking about wheat production in the United States and how much this would translate into loafs of bread, sort of a metric for the country’s self-sufficiency. Imagine a scenario where we would have to depend on our own wheat for our own bread, could we? I’m happy to report that we could, provided that the Federal Government or the U.S. Free Market system remains in place permitting the free movement of goods from one U.S. state to another. So if we’re talking about a Texas Secession scenario (I hang my head in shame) would we or they be self-sufficient? As I present the data, I’ll be sure to call out the underlying assumptions in this mini-project and we’ll conclude with its implications and how I could have improved it.

First the data, it comes from the U.S. Census Bureau (population estimated on July 1, 2012 by state), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (production by wheat type, yield, acreage by state), and the National Association of Wheat Growers (for some general ideas on how much bread is produced per bushel, and other fun facts). Second, my model assumptions. I’m assuming that every.single.bushel of winter wheat is being baked into a loaf of bread, at some point, over the year. Further, I assume that these loafs get to those who are the hungriest. Why winter wheat? Another website (that I conveniently forgot to keep in open) reported that Winter Wheat is primarily used for bread. Durum is used for pasta. And there this spring wheat as well. In 2012, the U.S. was on track to produce 2,224,075,000 bushels of wheat (2.2 billion) by July 1, 2012. Of that 1.6 billion or so was winter wheat, 82 million was durum, and 471 million was “other spring wheat.” Why is this important? Because some states, Arizona (durum) and Minnesota (other spring wheat) produce only non-winter wheat. So by leaving out those two types I essentially assume that they won’t be able to feed themselves (with bread) in this scenario. Further, some states produce multiple wheat types so I’m penalizing them for crop variety, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine a winter wheat disease ravages the U.S., Arizona, Minnesota and diversified winter wheat states will be better off than say, Kansas. Which brings me to my next point, scope, I’m only looking at winter wheat, white loaves of bread, and whole wheat loaves of bread. Further I’m assuming everyone in the state will eat this bread when they’re hungry and won’t die because of it. In essence, this is a model – not reality, its a discussion and analytic exercise. To the results!

Referencing the table below (I’d make a map but I’m just so tired) Kansas was projected to produce some 396 million bushels of winter wheat, almost a quarter of total U.S. supply. The top three producers, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Washington, account for 40% of U.S. winter wheat production. There are 29 states listed here the other 31 are found in “other states” and account for about 3% of total U.S. winter wheat production among themselves. The top producers span the western portions of the American Midwest to the western side of the Rocky Mountains (the North American continental divide). The 1.6 billion bushels of American winter wheat could produce over 70 billion 1.5 lb. loaves of white bread. According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, one bushel of wheat produces 42 loaves of white bread. If the whole wheat is used, 90 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread can be produced from a bushel. In this conversion, the U.S. could produce over 150 billion 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread. That’s a lot of bread.

Winter wheat, bread, population, 2012 (via Census, USDA, NAWG)

Winter wheat, bread, population, 2012 (via Census, USDA, NAWG)

But is it enough? Enter the U.S. Census data. By July 1, 2012 the Census estimated there would be about 313 million Americans. 70 billion loaves of bread seems like a lot, but remember that’s over an entire year. I could go through a loaf a week (but that’s a lot of bread so maybe every two weeks would have been a better idea). At any rate, I calculated the number of loaves of bread available, per week, for each individual. In July 2012, the United States probably produced enough wheat to provide every single person in the country, about four 1.5 lb. loaves of white bread OR about 9 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread, each week, for a calendar year. By this metric, yes the United States is self sufficient. On paper at least.

As we well know, there’s geographic disparity in wheat production. Based on the population numbers, Kansas produces enough wheat that it could provide a person in the state over 100 loaves of white bread or over 200 loaves of whole wheat bread per week for a year. North Dakota is probably the fourth-most self-sufficient, despite producing “only” 34 million bushels of winter wheat, the resulting bread could provide almost 40 to 80 loaves of bread to the 699 thousand inhabitants. By the same token, Texas is “barely” self-sufficient since its 26 million inhabitants would only receive between 2 and 6 loaves of bread per week, despite being the fourth largest producer of winter wheat. California and New York, other large states, are not self-sufficient in bread given their low winter wheat production and high populations. If the U.S. ever suffered a bread embargo (unlikely) then the populous east and west coasts would be competing for Midwestern breads.

While this exercise is a little bit far-fetched (admittedly) it does have actual implications. The first is for things like agricultural subsidies as integrated as the world economy becomes, food is still a “strategic” resource. Countries typically want to be able to control as much of their food supplies as possible. Though a dated example, Rome reportedly sowed the fields around Carthage with quicklime following the last of the Punic Wars in order to prevent Carthage from ever being a problem again. Today the stickiest negotiations at the World Trade Organization revolve around American and European agricultural subsidies. These subsidies promote an unfair global market titled toward “Western” producers, whose GDP is hardly based on agriculture in the first place, but in many developing economies, a sizeable chunk of GDP is centered on agriculture. The argument goes that if the “West” ended agricultural subsidies, the developing world could actually “develop” (economically). But then the “West” would be at the mercy of developing country governments, climates, and crops.

One thing this model needs is to account for milling locations, this data is probably available. I’m assuming here that the wheat is harvested and milled in the same location (by state). That might not be the case, while I’m assuming flour is easier to transport via rail I’m guessing its much less forgiving in terms of ambient moisture. Perhaps its easier to transport wheat from various locations to a mill?

In fact, I think its this latter point. I’m reminded now of something I read on the development of the northern U.S. economy and railroads. As the American West was opening in the 1800s, companies agreed to fund the construction of railroads westward for two purposes, first, to take eastern settlers to the Midwest (one fare) and second, to take western crops to mills in the East (a second fare). This apparently was enough to make rail lines profitable in the north. In the south, the dominance of the slavery economy and planter/plantation system, coupled with relatively lower population density made railroads difficult to justify. Planters wouldn’t want to fund competitors heading to the west, especially if they took slaves, who would be able to acquire cheaper and more plentiful land, and then out-produce the eastern planters. All of this is driven home in the map below, showing railroads in existence by 1870.

U.S. Railroads, ca. 1870 (via. brianaltonenmph)

So there you have it. A geography (albeit an American one) of bread. While the U.S. may be self-sufficient in matters of white and whole wheat bread, we should really be thanking the Kansans, Montanans, and Dakotans (yes, both of them) for producing so much extra. After all, I’m going to need some more flour to continue failing at making bread.

The State and Hunger: North Korea’s political Geography

The Mail (citing undercover reporters with Asia Press) reported the existence of cannibalism in North Korea, the last pure fascist-Marxist hybrid state left in Asia (perhaps the world). The article suggests that a ‘hidden famine’ is occurring in the country’s main breadbasket provinces and that some 10,000 people have already died. Causes of the potential famine are listed as a drought in the breadbasket areas and the confiscation of the remaining food by the government to give to the capital city, Pyongyang. While the brutality of the North Koran regime has been long documented by a variety of NGOs, this isn’t the first time that North Korea has experienced famine. The article notes that the North undertook an “Arduous March,” a delightful euphemism, for a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands (if not a million) people.

This real human tragedy highlights important geographic links. First, there is the importance of understanding countries at a sub-regional level. A drought in a mountainous area might cause local food shortages, but it probably doesn’t have much impact on the food situation in the country at-large. Agriculture, as we all know, is typically concentrated in more temperate climates, with good soil, with reliable access to fresh water, and groups of people to work the land. These requirements aren’t typically available on mountainous slopes, though it is possible (as the Inca proved) to support substantial communities given time and effort. The North Korea case highlights the importance of a drought in an agricultural belt, lowering agricultural output in your breadbasket necessarily has a wider impact on your food situation in the entire country.

Next, there is the importance of understanding state actions during a food shortage, which reveal and highlight the political geography of the state. In North Korea’s case, confiscating food from the breadbasket provinces and redistributing them to the capital highlights the importance that the state places on the residents in the capital city. One could potentially argue that the regime is willing to let its farmers starve, with the outcome of them not able to work the land, then to let residents in the capital go hungry or starve. If we return to the organic state concept, the North Korean state (and probably most states) identify the capital city as the focus of their power – it must be protected at all costs.

Together the potential famine in North Korea highlights the importance of understanding the natural and social causes of hunger. On the one hand, physical phenomena, like droughts or flooding, can have a grave impact on local food supplies, often causing starvation and death. But these phenomena are, by their very nature, somewhat localized especially when discussing a countrywide scale. The human impact on starvation is often left out of the discussion, confiscating food, withholding food supplies, or poor political decisions often complicate “natural” disasters. Another good study of the human/political impact on famine is the Bangladesh famine of 1974 (shortly after independence) where government mismanagement of foodstocks exacerbated a local crisis. There’s probably a political element to the focus on natural causes, its easier (and politically safer) to blame the natural environment than to accept blame that your political system shares a large fault.

A Geography of hunger: India and its (too) full rice bowl

    Times of India had a really good article on an interesting conundrum in the country. On the one hand, current stocks of food grains are 2.5 times larger than the government recommended minimum stock of grains in the public distribution system and strategic reserve (India sells part of its harvest through the public distribution system at a subsidized rate to those living below the poverty line). But on the other hand, some 25% of Indians go hungry or are malnourished. The article points out that India has 43% (!!) of India’s babies suffer from malnutrition, a figure higher than Ethiopia, Niger, and Bangladesh – countries typically associated with these problems.  While the article offers some explanation to the problem, I think we can some geographic perspective to this problem.

    The article points out two problems with the public distribution system, both related to Geography. First, the article notes that the number of families living under the poverty line is still an estimate based on a projection for the year 2000, using 1991 Census returns. While this makes sense to use throughout the 1990s, why didn’t the Indian government revisit the 10-year estimates at the 2001 and 2011 Censuses? While I would love to know the answer (probably politics and bureaucraticism), the impact is under discussion today. The Indian government is cognizant of the fact that the public distribution could be missing between 80 and 100 million persons by using these outdated projections. Assuming that the ratio of those living under the poverty line remained constant between 1991 and 2011, the actual number would increase (dramatically) because of the population growth.

    The other argument is the poverty line itself. As the article suggests the current peg (18 rupees for urban 12 for rural Indians) may be too high and that those living just above the peg are unable afford unsubsidized prices. That the peg differentiates between urban and rural residents is interesting. The built in assumption is that rural Indians make less money and probably have a built-in alternative, they can grow their own food. Urban residents are unlikely to have this alternative and the higher peg permits a greater inclusion of urban residents.

    Of  course we can add more hypotheses from a geographic perspective. For instance, there could still be lingering problems in the actual distribution of food via the transportation system. Referencing the two maps below, one showing Indian railways and agricultural production the other showing instances of famine and scarcity (both from the 1930s) we can see notable areas where the transportation network didn’t quite reach potential areas or, if the network did, perhaps it was too far away from the agricultural areas to make it in time? That people can still go hungry despite the existence of breadbaskets, even bumper harvests, within a country isn’t new. During the Bangladesh famine of 1974 a million died, despite a local peak in food production.

There are also additional demographic concerns. Is the current peg an average income for the entire household or is it per household? For instance, a family of five (2 adults, 3 children) makes 20 rupees a day. The total household income would preclude the family from benefiting from the subsidy, but the household’s average income is only 4 rupees a day. I suppose some would argue that utilizing an average would cause an explosion in the population’s growth rate as people try to impoverish themselves by having more children and thus, lowering their average income. While this is valid in the short term, we should keep in mind that as these children grow they will also make money thereby raising the family’s average income back above the poverty line. While there will always be people attempting to take advantage of every system of aid, I don’t think that’s reason to preclude the existence of the system in the first place, it just needs effective enforcement.

    Besides explanations of food production shortfalls for instance due to flooding, droughts, torrential rains, or cold snaps, Geography can also add perspective to hunger in the midst of bountiful harvests. As we outlined here, the transportation network and demographic aspects of the safety net should be considered in identifying and mitigating hunger.