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Okay, here’s the story on food. (“*” is this Economist story; “^” is this story in Santa Clara Magazine)

Food production is not a problem, because for the last 20 years we’ve produced more calories at a greater rate than we’ve produced more people.^ But still 1 in 6 people in the world is hungry.* Because they don’t have enough money to buy food.^ So the 2008 food crisis is good, because higher food prices = more money for poor farmers. Except that it didn’t, and isn’t.* And calories turns out not to be a good measure of human food energy or nutrition anymore, because the raw food calories increasingly go to animals and to fuel,* and in the US continue to be wasted en masse or converted into unhealthy, non-nutritious calories.^

You would think that we’d have collective agreement about the future of food, being that we do need it to live and all. But I haven’t found much agreement or straight story or people even doing the math. I see the population projection of “9 billion people by 2050” everywhere, for example, but never accompanied by any explanation or even theory about how those people are going to be fed. With the loaves and fishes of superscience, I guess.

The supply of each is interlinked with the others

The supply of each is interlinked with the others

The problem with the Santa Clara Magazine story, and with a lot of what I read about food, is that it talks just about food. It fails to take into account what I call the Iron Triangle, the fact that food, water and oil are today locked in an ironclad fate with each other, and it makes no sense to talk about one without at least mentioning the others. Food supply, after all, was one of the most pressing concerns raised by the World Without Oil game.

The alarming thing, of course, is that all three are said to be heading toward crisis independent of the others. For food, the crisis is arable land: the Economist reports that the thing that lifted the world out of the 2008 food crisis was Europe’s decision to rush its fallow-land reserve back under the plow. Water faces a multitude of crises, the top two may be climate change (megadroughts) and pollution. And the oil crisis, as talked about all along in this blog, is its inevitable stricture combined with the lack of alternatives and the lack of time or will to create an oil-independent economy.

Taken as a triangle, the weakness of each feeds the crisis of the others. The 2008 food crisis is creeping back in 2009, the Economist reports, due largely to the upcreep in oil prices and droughts caused by climate change. Water in turn is a huge energy consumer, and obviously essential to any  food production. And as the price of oil creeps up, it sparks more food-to-fuel conversion and processes such as oil sands development, which is water-intensive and climate-changing.

The bottom line for food is that today, people are hungry – even in America, which produces so much food that as much as 40% of it goes to waste. If the system couldn’t take care of its hungry in the fat years, what will it do now that we’ve entered the lean years?

Photo by Ken EklundCircumstances have conspired to create an explosion in backyard gardens. I heard this first anecdotally about a month ago from my friends in New York City, who reported that the nurseries near their farm in Vermont were just about out of everything. And now it’s hitting the newswires.

The backyard garden may conjure up patriotic memories of the Victory Gardens of World War II, but as the article notes, the last time that Americans really got serious about gardening was the Oil Shock of 1975. And sure enough, backyard and urban gardens were a central theme in the World Without Oil game – and local food and guerrilla gardening [1] [2], too.

It’s easy to see why – A garden turns some dirt, some water, some seeds, some weeding and some sun into food – the most efficient solar power device known to man. And as many WWO players cautioned, it’s good to start now: gardening is a skill that takes years to acquire – best not to count on a lifesaving bounty your first (or second) time out. Photo of the Farmers Market in Union Square, June 2008.


I’m at the Games 4 Change conference in New York. It actually begins Tuesday, June 3, but today there was a preconference event, “Game Design 101,” an intensive program to give possible Serious Game funders and collaborators a head start on the behavior of game designers and the elements of game projects. I went because, well, I can always use a good review of the basics of my profession.

One of the interactive exercises was “designing a game in 1 hour.” In the picture above, our first-round facilitator, Mary Flanagan (director of tiltfactor lab), waves goodbye flanked by my teammates Anne and Tam. Our team eventually came up with a food politics game called “One Potato Two Potato,” a card game that explored the many complex factors behind where your food comes from. You play from the POV of a potato farmer.

Tomorrow I’m on a panel entitled “Alternate Reality Games for Change,” sitting with some pretty heavy hitters (Jordan Weisman, Frank Lantz) and moderated by Peggy Weil. Go WWO!

Suddenly everyone’s talking about it: rice rationing in the USA. Coming seemingly from nowhere, although that’s just a bit of American myopia. The faulty rationales behind food-based fuel have been apparent to some from the start, and WWO player GailTheActuary laid them out pretty clearly in this post back during the game. But it’s still strange to see this sort of unintuited ramification of oil addiction burst onto the scene – it’s in eerie parallel to the World Without Oil game itself, when this sort of thing occurred every day. As we approach the first anniversary of the start of the oil shock, it’s preja-vu all over again. (Thanks Marie)

Was this not a game? Was World Without Oil indeed a look at the shape of things to come?

This article by Jacob Adelman in today’s paper tells of farmers in America who have seen the cost of fertilizer jump 20% a week in recent weeks. “We’ll get four or five price increases in a single day,” says a fertilizer distributor. In 50 years in the business, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s like there’s no end in sight. It’s very scary,” one farmer says. The cause? Competition for fertilizer from China, India and other rapidly growing countries – and the rising cost of petroleum energy, which in turn is diverting natural gas from fertilizer manufacture into (more profitable) use as fuel. As we’ve already seen with corn-based ethanol, our demand for energy won’t stop even if it means less food for the table.

Instability growing as food prices jumpAnd make no mistake, there is less food for the table. “Global food prices surged 57 percent last month from a year earlier, according to the United Nations, and the World Bank warns civil disturbances may be triggered in 33 countries,” reports Bloomberg.com.

“Recent weeks have seen Philippine authorities scramble to augment rice stocks in the country, Indonesian officials warn of possible social unrest due to skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs, irate Egyptians protesting bread shortages, and international food aid programs unable to buy enough goods to meet their food distribution targets for vulnerable populations,” Voice of America reports. “This is the world’s big story,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, reports CNN.

Doesn’t this sound like WWO? The alarming dependence we have on oil in order to grow our food was one of the major themes of the World Without Oil alternate reality game, and explored in depth by our players. We use oil to plant our food, to fertilize and pesticide it, to harvest it, refrigerate it and transport it great distances. We use oil to truck in its pollinators and pump in its water. Irrigation lines, row cover, and other essentials of the farm trade are made from oil. In the game, when the price of oil jumped up and its availability went down, the price and availability of food inexorably followed.

What to do? Get educated, especially about local sources of food. One of the WWO Lesson Plans can help.

Meanwhile, oil hit $117 a barrel, and experts say oil prices may remain high even if demand begins to fall. Photo by mattlemmon via Flickr.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.