“Use your backyards, vacant lots, idle farms, even flower pots, to plant food crops. Go back to the provinces and plant. Don’t look at the government to help you. It won’t. It will help its top officials first. So help yourself.” – Neal Cruz, Asian Journal Online, March 31 2008, in an article on the rice situation in the Philippines.

Last Saturday, Mr. Nettle took a walk up to the local South Asian grocery to pick up yogurt and incense charcoal. I asked him to check in with the grocer about the rice situation in Asia. I read the news and I know things look bad there, but I’m never sure how well that sort of thing is reported. Our grocer runs a small business catering mostly to the local immigrant population. It’s the best place around for buying spices, bulk ingredients like rice flour, potato starch, brown rice, every kind of bean known to mankind, and those tasty instant meals in the foil packs. We usually get rice from them in ten-pound bags, which is enough for about a month for the two of us – less if we’re feeling particularly poor and want to stretch the food budget. Our grocer, as it turns out, is afraid. He’s frightened for his relatives in India and he’s frightened for his business. He believes that India is headed for starvation and that his suppliers will no longer be able to send food out of the country.

The rice situation is just a piece of a larger problem that is looming. Our unsustainable food system is on its way to a breakdown – I don’t want to get into too much detail on it here, since this isn’t really the place and I’m not the person for that sort of analysis, but if this is news to you, here is a place to start. Sharon Astyk’s blog is another great source if you want a little more depth and a lot more practical information.

I don’t think most people believe that we will ever have food shortages in the US. We are so accustomed to plenty. I don’t think I believe it myself. Even when I look at all the factors coming together right now – climate change, the price of oil, financial crisis, the land war in Asia, just to start with – and while I think it looks very bad, I don’t have that gut feeling that true food shortages are possible here. There is this instinctive resistance to thinking “it could happen here” even when I know that it could.

A few years back when gas prices started to go up, I was glad for it. Not because I want people to suffer or because I hate cars (though I do actually hate cars, but that’s beside the point), but because I knew that it was inevitably going to happen and the more gradually it did, the more time people had to get used to it and make accommodations. I thought it would lead to less hardship in the long run because it would get people to wake up. Before that, my concern was that it would go from $1.50 to $4.00 in a few months and leave everyone scrambling. And yet, we’ve had time to see where this is going and everyone is still scrambling. Changes are being made, but it’s happening much too slowly, I think for the same reason – people think that this is a temporary situation, an artifact of market forces that will eventually be reversed and we can all go back to normal. We can’t help but think this way. It hasn’t really sunk in yet that this is the new normal.

So I’ve decided to take the food situation as a warning. Maybe there won’t be a crisis in the food supply this year, or next year, or in the next decade. Maybe not. But it’s clear to me, as it was clear to me with the oil situation, that our current system cannot be sustained and will eventually break down, and anything I do to prepare for that is all to the good, even if the price of rice drops next month and the current crisis is averted.

With this in mind, I’m determined to get more serious about my backyard gardening. I don’t have very much space, but I always try to grow some sort of vegetable every year. Last year it was tomatoes, which came in abundance. I could do so much more, though, even in my limited space. I’ve been treating gardening as a hobby, a way of enjoying the outdoors and getting a little bit of fresh food for fun. I would still like it to be fun but on a bigger scale. I’m going to put in a real, if small, garden this year. We’ve got maybe ten square feet suitable for vegetables. My goal is to grow enough that I have some to put up. This will be a challenge considering the space constraints, but it will be a good exercise and a learning experience even if we don’t hit that goal.

Anyone have any tips for backyard organic gardening in a small space? I’m working with Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening,” but I’m open to helpful suggestions.

addendum: after writing this, I noticed this article at MSNBC.com about rising food costs. It’s a total piece of fluff as an article and I kept wanting to find a really really tiny violin for the people they were interviewing* but it at least shows that the mainstream media is paying some level of attention to this.

Since this is a post about food, I must include a recipe. I made this last night to deal with a surfeit of carrots. I made it up as I went along but it came out really good and Mr. Nettle raved about it, so I’m recording it here to remember it.

Creamy Carrot-Potato Soup

3 potatoes
4 carrots
2 cups chicken broth (or substitute veggie broth or water to make it veg)
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons potato starch (you could also use flour or cornstarch – this is just for thickening.)
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Chop the potatoes and carrots and bring to a boil in the chicken broth. When they are all mushy, turn the heat way down. Ladle out about half a cup of the broth into a little cup or bowl. Mash or blend (I used my Braun stick blender) until it’s kind of chunky. You don’t have to cream it all the way yet. Whisk the potato starch into the reserved broth until it’s smooth and thick. Add the spices, cheese, sour cream and potato starch mix into the potato/carrot/broth mash. Continue blending as you add everything until it’s all smooth and creamy.

It was very tasty and as I said Mr. Nettle really loved it. Next time I think I’ll use more carrot – it tasted very potato-y, especially with the potato starch in. More carrot would have given a more interesting flavor and a more orange color. I think it would be good with any kind of cheese, not just the parm, and other spices would be tasty. Oregano, maybe, or some fresh rosemary. It would also benefit from some garlic. This was a “I have a bunch of stuff to use up, what would be good?” kind of thing. Other root vegetables, like turnips or beets, would work.

*Warning – snarky commentary ahead: “Eating out is almost a luxury now!” No, eating out is ALWAYS a luxury. It’s just one that you can afford less now. “I have to eat last night’s leftovers for lunch!” What did you do before that? Any answer besides “Eat them later” or “make them an ingredient in another meal” is the wrong one, no matter how much money you have. It’s not a hardship to eat leftovers or go to restaurants less often. These people are complaining about having to follow a budget as though it’s a hardship to endure rather than a normal part of being a responsible adult. “I don’t go the store hungry anymore because that easily adds an extra $100 to the bill,” Here’s a tip: Figure out how much you can spend on food. Do not bring more cash than that with you to the grocery store. Do not use plastic. If you get to the checkout and you have $100 extra on your bill, they won’t let you take it out of the store without paying. You will not go over budget! It’s like magic! You will very quickly learn which items you really need and which you don’t. If you can’t afford to put 2000-3000 calories worth of nutritious food into each member of your family every day, then you have a problem. If you just can’t afford to buy all the treats and convenience foods you want but can otherwise keep your family healthy, then you have no problem. Grow up and get over it.