Where’s the Wheat?

The USA is the world’s preeminent food exporter, so it seems reasonable to suppose that in an emergency we would have huge stockpiles of it sitting around. Consider wheat, which unlike most agricultural products normally has a long shelf life and doesn’t require refrigeration. It is produced in the following states:

TOP TEN WHEAT PRODUCING STATES - 2001 Spring Wheat - Amounts in Bushels (1000): North Dakota 234,600; Minnesota 79,200; Montana 65,550; South Dakota 64,350; Idaho 33,320; Washington 25,830; Oregon 5,250; Colorado 3,168; Utah 784; Wisconsin 360.

Notice that wheat is grown far from population centers. Companies like Cargill buy it from farmers in the fall and store it in huge grain silos at railheads, shipping it out as needed. So if you happen to live in a place like North Dakota, you don’t have to look far for wheat berry. If you want the wheat transported somewhere else, or processed into flour, that’s a problem. There is no power for flour mills or for pumping diesel fuel into trucks. If you managed somehow to drive a wheat-laden truck into a city, your cargo would probably be stolen by thieves or commandeered by local authorities. What could they pay you with, anyway?

Nor would the wheat stored at railheads last long. Normally there is a screw mechanism in silos that continuously circulates the grain, killing pest insects and preventing mildew. Without power, the grain would rot or be eaten by pests before much of it could be eaten by people.

I’m not a farmer and I look forward to hearing from someone more knowledgeable that the situation is not as bad as I’ve described.


Second Nuclear Age

Paul Bracken just published The Second Nuclear Agewhich examines the implications of nuclear proliferation. He criticizes American strategic thinkers for downplaying the importance of nuclear weapons in world politics, and for letting America’s nuclear stockpile become antiquated.

Although Bracken adds useful perspectives to the conversation about world politics, he fails to address the threat of EMP weapons. This surprises me, because the damage a single nuclear weapon can do through an electromagnetic pulse vastly exceeds any blast damage it might cause. He does mention that some weapons can affect communications and the electric grid, but he seems to regard these as short term problems and does not appreciate the grim and profound implications. For example, it does not make a big difference whether an enemy has one or one hundred nuclear warheads; he can destroy a large country with just a single warhead used to generate an HEMP.

The only good thing about EMP weapons is that all nations are vulnerable. This is good because it serves as an incentive to work together to find solutions. Israel and China may develop hardening technical fixes or antimissile defenses that can be used by everyone. Instead of the US saving Israel, Israel may save the US, if we can all just survive the next few years.

Seed Repositories

In my “Symmetric Warfare” post, I wrote

The best solution I’ve come up with is for people to camp out on farms and defend them…

The question is, how do you get from here to there? Lots of planning and cash is necessary to store enough food to feed not only the farmers, but volunteers from the city. Farms are so spread out that it would be hard to defend them all. One approach is to concentrate your defensive efforts on particular farms, which I will call “seed repositories.” A seed repository stores seed for planting crops for a group of farms, and serves as a refuge for nearby farmers. At the onset of a serious emergency, pre-arranged volunteers would come to each seed repository to help defend it. In return, the volunteers would be fed and sheltered (perhaps in tents) during the crisis.

Seed repositories might be financed in part by dues from memberships. After all, aside from the practical benefits of repositories, preserving the productive capacity of farms during times of disaster is a noble effort to be part of. It is also a worthy cause to donate to, and might draw substantial donations from wealthy people who worry about the future.

Symmetric Warfare

A nuclear EMP would cause prolonged grid failure. This in turn would cause famine and widespread violence. Wandering gangs of thugs would methodically plunder homes. They would have the advantage of superior numbers, of experience, and of surprise. Normally  the police deal with such gangs, but police are likely to stay home with their hungry and defenseless families, and are too few in any case.

Neighbors could join together to defend themselves, but unless they planned ahead, they would have less food and fewer weapons than the gang members. At best, they might achieve parity, a kind of “symmetric warfare” in which for every bad guy killed, one good guy dies. These are not very attractive odds if there are lots of bad guys.

The best solution I’ve come up with is for people to camp out on farms and defend them, using defensive walls and open fields of fire to improve the odds. Besides, if farms are ruined, everyone will starve eventually, no matter how much food they have stored.

Afterthought – Symmetric warfare is scary to bad guys too. They would rather have the advantage, and if a neighborhood puts up a brave defense, they may well retreat and  move on to easier prey.