Wednesday, July 17, 2013

We Really Are the World

Could someone please explain to me why we have food shortages and famine and starvation in this world? Could someone please tell me why some people go hungry? So far, unless it’s a function of mankind, I’m not buying the arguments I’ve been told.

Here’s why I make that claim.

I was given a tomato last week by my daughter-in-law. She and my son have grown a garden and are producing some food for themselves. (They also brought me a squash the size of a baseball bat that I’m going to grill tonight for dinner.) It was a Brandywine tomato, an heirloom variety with a rich flavor, amazing aroma and peculiar markings. It was delicious.

Before I ate it, raw, sliced, with a little salt sprinkled on it, I saved out the seeds. I placed them on a paper towel and then removed the jelly-like sac around each seed and let them dry on another paper towel. I ended up with about 180 seeds from this tomato. Then I started to look at them and started to wonder.

I wondered how many fruits a single plant would produce. Then I wondered how many seeds that would be. Then I wondered how many plants would germinate and grow from those seeds. Then I wondered how much fruit could be produced by this one seed alone over 5 years with some very conservative assumptions. Then I rested my brain because numbers of that size cause me pain. Without a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t be able to follow along.

First, I assumed that if I grew this tomato plant, I could expect about 24 fruits per plant. Some would yield more, some fewer. But based on my experience with this variety, this is what I could reasonably and conservatively expect. OK, so now we start to look into the future.

Let’s assume a 50% germination rate. That would yield me about 90 plants the first year. At about 24 fruits per plant, I would yield about 2160 tomatoes. This would, in turn, give me 4,665,600 seeds for planting the second year. Again, with about a 50% germination rate and the same productivity rate, at the end of the second year, I would have more than 261 trillion seeds. By year 5, I would have 1,553,347,859,158,130,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 seeds to plant. I don’t even know what to call this number. I think it might be 1.5 quintillion googol, but I’m not a math guy. Has your mind exploded yet? Mine did.

So if we go back to the second year, the one with the measly 261 trillion seeds, we can figure that’s probably enough seeds for the world. We don’t have that many people on the planet yet, so I figure that we’re safe with that many. If we allot 2 square feet per plant, to grow that many tomatoes we would need about 18.8 million square miles. That’s about 6 times the area of China. That’s without taking into consideration walkways between the rows of plants, roads for the trucks to haul the produce, and land for the stockpiling, storage and processing of the tomatoes. Might need 7 Chinas then.

But I don’t think that we want that many tomatoes anyway. I don’t, certainly not all the same variety. I realize that this would be a Monsanto fantasy, but what about the other varieties of tomato, especially the ones with fewer to more seeds per fruit? All of a sudden, we’re talking about a lot of tomatoes. So why would we have so many seeds in one tomato? Why would one tomato plant produce so many seeds, more than 4000 per plant per year? Is it only because it wants to insure its DNA is continued into the future, a ‘survival of the species’ thing? I don’t think so.

I think it’s another example of our loving, wise and kind Heavenly Father preparing a world so filled with richness and beauty and abundance all for the welfare of His children.  I think it’s a reminder to us that we need to remember others; that it’s a message for us to know that God loves us and that we have a responsibility to take care of this earth and each other.

If someone is going hungry, it’s not because we can’t feed them. If there are places that don’t have access to food, it’s not because they can’t change that. Now I’m not proposing that we build greenhouses in Alaska to grow tomatoes, but we could. I’m just suggesting that we can do a better job taking care of what we have been given. We can do more than we are doing. We can find ways to take care of ourselves. And still have plenty left over to help someone else.

Let’s say in my house we need to have 24 quarts of tomatoes each year to take care of our needs. We could use these in sauces, as additions to main and side dishes and to add to things like salads and sandwiches. That translates to about 12 medium-sized tomatoes per quart, or about the output of 12 of those plants from the seed example. Could I grow 12 tomato plants in my yard each year? Yes. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. So I could produce all the tomatoes my family needs each year. All I have to do is grow them, pick them, bottle them and store them for later consumption.

But can I grow more than 12 tomato plants along with the other things I would need? Yes, I can. I’m lucky that my house sits on about 1/3 of an acre. 12 tomato plants will only take up about 24 square feet of space, about .3 of one percent of the land left over after you subtract my house, driveway and sidewalks. 3/10ths of one percent for a year’s supply of tomatoes. Seems to me to be a reasonable exchange.

So let’s say I can produce twice that amount of tomatoes. Now I have enough to provide tomatoes for a whole year to another family the same size as mine. Of course, there will be some expense involved, so I would need to charge this other family for my services to cover my expenses. I’m sure I could find a family that would buy tomatoes from me even if it just saved them the trouble of growing them. All of a sudden, I’m a farmer. I have a business.

But I don’t want to just grow tomatoes and eat tomatoes. I want salsa. Now, I have to add onions, garlic, cilantro, and hot peppers to my grow list. Can I do that? Sure. Can I repeat the same thing about the seeds with, say, cilantro? Sure I can. In fact, I just did that. I let 6 of my cilantro plants continue to grow after it got hot this year. Once they bolt, the leaves don’t taste nearly as good as they do when they are young and tender. So I let them go to seed.

I had these tall, beautiful plants in my garden, nearly 4 feet tall. They blossomed with a showy cover of tiny white flowers. Each of these flowers was visited by my neighbor’s bees. (I LOVE having a neighbor who keeps bees!) For a couple of weeks, the garden was really buzzing.

Once the flowers had all been pollinated, they closed up, dried and fell off. Then I could see a small, round, hard ball-like thing on the end of each flower stem. These were the seeds of the cilantro. These are called coriander. This year I harvested about two pounds of coriander. That’s enough for me to have all the cilantro I can eat this fall, winter and spring as well as coriander seeds for seasoning and spice use. They are great in pickles, plus I don’t have to buy seed again next year. I will just save some of what I grew to plant this fall.

I am in the midst of harvesting my garlic. Last fall, I planted about 220 individual cloves of garlic. That was dumb. What am I going to do with 200 garlic bulbs? Oh, yeah, that’s right. I have a business now. After I set aside the best of the garlic for this fall’s planting, I still have more garlic than I can use. I’ll dry some and powder it for seasoning and I’ll mince some and I’ll give some away. It’s actually fun to ask people if they would like some garlic. It’s not the most normal question a person gets asked. You ask them and they stare blankly at you while it registers in their brains. Then they smile, and everybody says “thank you.” I haven’t had anyone turn me down yet.

A few years ago one of my daughters was staying with us for a while. During that time, she bought a cayenne pepper plant. We installed it in the garden and it did just fine. That fall, when everything else died, it lived on. We had it in a south-facing spot up against a block wall. Apparently, the wall retained enough heat and radiated it back onto the pepper so much that the pepper didn’t die. Actually, it lived for three years before an unexpected seriously hard frost happened one night. I must have harvested 30 pounds of hot, hot peppers from it. Each year they got hotter. I dried them and put them in a small blender and powdered them. I’m still eating that stuff, which we call “PH” (for “Powdered Hell!”). And it is mighty tasty and might hot.

Each of those peppers had a couple dozen seeds in it. I’ve saved quite a few of them and they are viable and grow quickly. I don’t think I’ll have to buy another cayenne pepper in my lifetime as long as I keep saving seeds and refreshing my stock of them.

One day my wife was cutting the green tops from some bunching onions. She stopped about an inch from the bottom, the root end. When she was done with each onion, she would casually toss the end bit into the compost bin. I watched her and thought about it for a while and decided I wanted to try something. I had heard that you could grow onions from just a bit of the root end and I wanted to try that out.

I soaked those ends in water for about an hour and then I poked my finger into the soil of the garden and inserted the onion butt into the hole. I watered them in. Every day when I checked on them, they seemed to have grown a bit taller. At first they were only a tiny little bud poking out of the ground. Then several leaves appeared and finally it grew large enough and was picked again for dinner. After that, I just ate them as I worked in the garden or brought them into the kitchen when my wife needed some for a salad or some other dish. When she cuts off what she needs, I pop them back into the garden and off the go to repeat the process. People look at me funny when I tell them I’ve been eating the same onions for three years. They look at me funny anyway, but I have been eating the same onions for three years.

Now to get back to my original question about the food shortages and famine. I’ll take a shot at answering it myself.

Obviously, we could grow all the tomatoes the world could possibly want. We don’t lack for seed or raw materials. Since we can produce the food, and we can process it and store it, what does that leave us? Is it a transportation problem? Well, no, we already know that we can eat a tomato in New York that was grown in Peru, so obviously transportation isn’t the problem. That only leaves us. People. Are we the problem? Are we getting in our own way?

I don’t know, but my guess is that we don’t want to feed everybody. It’s not a priority. We want to eat, that’s for sure. But my guess is that we want to have an income more than we want to feed the world. After all, people with no money cannot pay for food. And if they cannot pay, then we don’t have to send them food. We are not forced to feed the world so we don’t. we also are not motivated as a species to take care of other members of our species so we don’t.

And it's actually sad that amidst all this possible abundance, we have folks who lack. Makes me want to change my perspective a bit.

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