Nine Meals Away from Anarchy
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Toronto is a case in point. Surrounded by the largest and one of the most fertile Greenbelts in the world, the city has no government program to encourage Greenbelt farmers to grow, or set aside reserves, for local markets. What’s more, Toronto’s major supermarkets concede off the record that they have only three days’ supply of food on hand at any given time—a result of the policy known as Just in Time delivery.
The best explanation of such emergency-denial can be found in Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents, which examined several near-disasters of the early 1980s. Perrow argued that accidents were waiting to happen in high-tech systems based on “unforgiving design” that can’t respond to warnings, thereby causing “unexpected, incomprehensible, uncontrollable and unavoidable” crises which he labeled “system accidents”—not your grandmother’s haphazard accidents, but accidents caused by hidebound, high-strung systems with no human give or take to them. That’s one way of describing today’s food system, including food system public oversight.
What Perrow calls unforgiving design (today’s ruder software designers call it “clusterfuck”) allows one error to run amok and spiral out of control. This is a feature of the four systems that must work in error-free concert to keep food coming into our cities.
The first system is actual food production, which operates in a zone where orange lights should flash to warn of too many eggs in too few baskets. To support low-cost mass production methods, the world’s most productive farms have specialized in a frighteningly small number of plants and livestock breeds responsible for more than three-quarters of the calories eaten today. Rice, wheat, and corn (not potatoes) top the list of 12 plants, in concert with five breeds of livestock, that keep the world from starving to death—assuming climate, pests, and diseases won’t swoop down on this precariously narrow range of diversity.
The second system is the logistics and supply chain geared for distant purchases at one end and Just in Time delivery at the other. Distant delivery ensures lowest price for the farmer, while Just in Time ensures lowest cost to the supermarket for local food storage. Taxpayer-funded highways are thereby turned into mobile warehouses for trucks that keep deliveries of three days’ supply coming in. Just in Time planning saves retailers money, but sacrifices what British food critic Geoff Tansey and author of The Future Control of Food, calls “Just in Case” planning.