As recently as 50 years ago it was common for American families to have gardens and can or freeze what they produced. Many people also waited for seasonal produce sales to stock up, canning or freezing the surplus food for consumption over the following year. In addition, many people had root cellars where they could store apples, potatoes, onions, and many other food items for months at a time including over the winter. Interruptions in the shipments of food into an area were troublesome, but not a serious problem because most people had stores of food they could subsist on for weeks or even months if necessary. Times have changed significantly, however, and the majority of people today not only do not can or preserve food, but don’t even know how to do this. The food in most homes would last for days or weeks at most, not weeks or months as in the past, suggesting the average person’s ability to survive in a food shortage is greatly reduced. Why has this happened?
Agribusiness and mass merchandising have come of age in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although canning, pickling, and freezing of fresh food have come back a little since 2000, they are still nowhere near as common as they were fifty or more years ago. Almost all the food I eat in a given day now was purchased in the last few days. Although it’s hard to tell with processed foods, much of the food I eat also came from more than a thousand miles away. Examples include produce from California, Mexico, and Florida, and fruit and nuts from as far away as South Africa and India. What would happen if there was an interruption in long distance shipping of food products?
Extremely inexpensive shipping systems contribute to higher risk. A key part of globalization, the extremely low cost to ship goods across the planet, has made it easy for us to buy, and for stores to sell, a South African orange, for example, at a time of year when oranges would not normally be available here. There are other implications for low shipping costs, however. The extremely high competition in the food industry has driven sellers to cut every possible penny out of their costs, and shipping has been so cheap that they can afford to search the world for lowest-cost sources. The resulting sourcing of food from third world countries is also driven by cost, especially for crops that require labor-intensive harvesting methods. Even at minimum wage an American worker can’t compete with a third world worker on cost, and the higher shipping cost of foreign food items isn’t enough to make up the difference. Fundamentally, however, longer shipping routes increase risk of a variety of natural and man-made occurrences that could cut off the food supply to a sizable region.
Efficient distribution systems preclude the need for home food storage. Huge “big box” stores handle mass quantities of food efficiently and allow us to buy exactly what we want, when we want it, for the lowest possible price. All of this contributes to my convenience – I don’t have to plan ahead for my meals as much, nor do I have to store much food at home. I can be confident that, if I choose to cook instead of going out, I can run to the grocery store and find just about anything I could want. As a result, my refrigerator is filled more with condiments and accessory-foods such as pickles than main dish items. The problem is, if I had to survive on the food I have in the house today, I would only have a few days worth, and I’m not alone.
The food risk is steadily increasing. In the days of canning the food supply was a lot more resilient. Nowadays, with a lot less food stored in people’s homes, we are increasingly ripe for problems and food riots should there be a major shortage affecting the U.S, as people’s’ backs will be against the wall within days.
Locally sourced food is making a gradual comeback. The local food movement is a positive force in this game, but hasn’t grown big enough to make much difference. More towns and cities than ever have regularly scheduled farmer’s markets, but too few people will take the time to purchase real, high quality natural food and cook it when the convenience of big box stores and the ever-increasing availability of restaurants predominate. Given the population in our towns and cities, farmers would have almost no chance of supplying their local areas with enough food if supplies from farther away were cut off.
It is sad but understandable that food supply risks have increased so severely. It’s clear that human populations in both developed and developing countries have grown to the point of precluding sustainable local food production. Even in the most impoverished countries processed foods are making inroads, promoted by agribusiness corporations (often with the help of tactfully placed bribes and support from our state department), and the share of profits food merchandisers make from the developing countries is on a steady upswing. As long as the population continues to explode and international shipping remains so cheap, risks will continue to climb.
Hopefully we will not see a major food supply interruption any time soon. An inconveniently placed war, pirate activity, or natural disaster could cause an interruption in our food supply, but a much bigger risk is implied in the population explosion itself, as eventually the demand for food and other goods will exceed the capacity of any conceivable system. Increasing fossil fuel costs will also change the types and cost of foods that are economical to ship long distances, so certain types of food items will move back to more local and regional sources. When demand exceeds supply, however, prices will rise and the poorest countries will see food shortages first.
Who’s paying attention? Government food regulators such as the FDA and congress appear to be dominated by corporate lobbyists, and food corporations are focusing only on increasing their short-term market share and quarterly dividends. The result is that neither government nor the food industry seem to be taking the long view and I’ve heard no plan for mitigating the risk of food shortages, let alone the root cause: overpopulation. The local food movement is a direct response to these risks though it can’t now make up the difference, and is less likely to be able to do so as population continues to explode.
Make yourself heard. While these issues all seem simple and intuitive, their lack of mention by either the media or government officials is ominous and suggests there are no plans for dealing with them. As a result, we remain under ever-increasing risk of food shortages. Still, that risk can be mitigated at the local level by taking up the old ways of canning, pickling, and storage. We’ve never had a population as big as we have now, so the old ways will provide only limited remedies, and only for a time, but we may have to take what we can get.
Action is appropriate. The more people who establish personal/family gardens and learn to preserve food for the longer term, the better off we’ll be, but more importantly we need legislative action, serious long-range planning, and a change in focus to create a worldwide concentration on lowering birthrates, regulating multinational corporations to influence them in the direction of promoting sustainability, and the strengthening of local food suppliers. The less we do along these lines the higher the probability of major food shortages for which we will be less ready than we’ve been in centuries. Please write or call your elected representatives and let them know of your concerns around these issues. If they don’t hear from us they won’t know what we want, and we’re far less likely to get any of it.
As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim