The Global Food Supply Chain is Brittle And May Not Survive the Next Pandemic
Support your local food network and improve your chances of surviving.
No one needs exotic foods from faraway lands to nourish themselves. Nowadays, we’re encouraged to ‘eat the rainbow’, meaning a diverse array of foods, mainly plants, from all over the world. However, this nutritional advice supports the food industry, not health. Whatever environment you find yourself in, the local, seasonal foods should be enough, and pre WW2, always were. Today, our food system extends vast distances providing us with foodstuffs from everywhere, all the time. This global, food supply chain is vulnerable in a million different ways, some obvious, some not. The unforeseen pandemic of COVID-19 has exposed an issue with the globalisation of our food systems and so, as food supplies start being affected, is it time that we start looking to our once secure, local food systems again?
“When it comes to food, nutrients are what matters, and they can be found in your local environment.”
The most adaptable animal of all
Minus Antarctica, humans comfortably exist on every continent on the globe and have done for millennia. We can flourish on icy tundras, exclusively eating animals or humid jungles with an abundance of plants and everything in between. We didn’t have to twiddle our thumbs awaiting genetic alterations or evolutionary changes to fit into our new surroundings, because we have the ability to change the moment we ingest new foods.
Our bodies interact with our environment via diet. The intestinal flora is the software within us that allows cellular information to pass from the outside to the inside. Basically, it allows us to nourish ourselves in new surroundings. Certain species of intestinal flora will flourish dependant on what’s being eaten. This symbiotic relationship between microbes and Man allows us to extract more nutrients from the food we eat because what humans really need are macronutrients and micronutrients.
Not delicious flavours, rainbows, antioxidants, polyphenols or any other bonus food chemicals from the latest ‘superfood’. When it comes to food, nutrients are what matters, and they can be found in your local environment. Calories, by the way, come along with nutrients, but in our modern world and, at odds with nature, nutrients don’t always come along with calories. Therein lies a problem beyond the scope of this article.
“Right now, fear, not failure, is the culprit.”
What is local anyway?
A local food system is a loose interpretation and then some. However, the USDA has classified it as within 400 miles, or within the same state, as production. In the UK, I suppose, local is just a reduced version of that, buying directly from the farmer or buying a slice of cake from the local farmers market before you nip into Sainsbury's to buy something, flown from Argentina, cheaper. And that’s the appeal.
“..uncertainty has mutated into fear, and is making us hoard.”
Oddly, it’s cheaper to buy things shipped from the other side of the globe than it is, in some cases, from the guy down the road. That’s because we have such an incredible, technological, food supply chain that provides us with the wonders of faraway lands. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that some global disturbance — like an aggressive viral outbreak keeping us all inside and infecting Capitalism as I write this — could easily disrupt the thousands of logistical cogs required for this machine to keep producing. Right now, fear, not failure, is the culprit.
Fear has disrupted our food system
The global food supply chain is just one of the industries now considered on a ‘war footing’ for obvious reasons. Whilst we all stay at home, those involved in this critical industry must turn up for work, our lives depend on it. Many of us have become acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of long-distance logistics, especially perishables, like food. It doesn’t take much thought to imagine the difficulties. This has created uncertainty about whether or not we’ll be able to continue eating like we normally do. This uncertainty has mutated into fear and is making us hoard. This hoarding has disrupted the food supply chain where it counts, the supermarkets.
Images of empty shelves and selfish, frightened people fighting in supermarket aisles, have heightened this fear and the very situation we were trying to avoid is manifest. I’m all out of loo paper, damn you! The fear of disruption, rather than actual disruption, is leaving the most vulnerable people exposed to the additional, and arguably more serious problem of food shortages. Imagine if we didn’t have to rely so much on that elongated and brittle system?
I walked down to my local farm today and bought two dozen eggs and two litres of milk. I didn’t have to interact with a single person. The milk — which I turn into an incredible Greek yoghurt — is dispensed from a vending machine and the chickens, predictably lay in nests, where the egg wobbles its way down to a collection tray accessible by anyone who wants it. If you’re not there by 10 in the morning you can forget it. I can easily walk or cycle to other farms to buy free-range pork and beef, from nose to the tail. It’s cheaper to buy from the supermarkets but I support local farming systems that are not industrialised CAFOs — a disgusting extension of greed — and I’m happy to spend more money doing it.
“..a short food supply chain improves flavour, quality and total nutrients.”
The benefits of a short food supply chain
There are so many benefits to reinvigorating our local food system that it seems crazy not to. Take a deep breath, ready? They reduce wastage, keep money in the local economy, are more secure, more accountable — foodborne illness is very hard to trace and results in vast wastage — , have fewer intermediaries, and are a fantastic way of driving sustainable changes. They benefit our health and wellbeing, via greater access to healthier foods and less junk that can happily sit in a crate for 2 years before seeing the light of day. Also, the trust between consumers and producers is improved, which enhances the sense of community and belonging, which is associated with greater longevity and, best of all a short food supply chain improves flavour, quality and total nutrients. WOW.
Well, not everyone can walk to a farm!
55% of us live in cities and also need feeding. Technology is a wonder of today and should be embraced at all times, everywhere and without exception. If a low tech, fairer and more secure option is available to you and, you accept it, you’re a Luddite and should go back to scratching a living as a rag and bone man/women in Dickensian London. Also, it should make you feel warm and cosy to imagine the executives, of the ten mega-corporations that own the food industry, nobly travelling by Tesla, to their second homes rather than taking the chopper: Just doing their bit. There’s nothing like a critical assessment of your own work. Sorry, that’s not much of an antithesis, is it? I tried, I really did.
“Local food systems are more secure and less likely to crumble in times of trouble.”
We don’t need exotic foods to be healthy because we can obtain plenty of nutrients from all the environments in which we live, and have done so prior to the globalisation of the food supply chain. Exotic foods, once a novelty and still delicious, are the result of a fantastically complex but vulnerable machine. This has been brought sharply into focus by recent events. Ironically, the fear of shortages has lead people to hoard food which has created real shortages for others. Not cool, but we’re slaves to our emotions and fear has awoken ancient, survival behaviours within us.
These behaviours, normally reserved for civil wars and such like, would not be bubbling to the surface if we could all just relax a bit about the supply chain. Communities could concentrate on feeding the local people with real, tasty and nutritious foods. Born and grown versus the exotics picked prematurely, by an exploited worker, to ripen in a refrigerated container ship or rushed over by a carbon belching aeroplane.
The benefits of adopting a predominantly local food system again are diverse and many. The standout winner today is simple; security. Local food systems are more secure and less likely to crumble in times of trouble. Also, shorter supply chains can breathe life back into struggling rural communities. They offer new places of employment and could see the countryside humming again with the noises of insects and bustling market towns.