Nine Meals Away from Anarchy

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Photo By Rick Harris
Thanks to “Just in Time” delivery, most stores keep only 3 days’ worth of food on site.

It started in Greece, where a national debt crisis led to millions of laid-off workers and cut-off pensioners. Suddenly unable to afford basic groceries, formerly middle and working class people started buying low-cost staples in bulk from local farmers. City governments set up drop-offs where people bought sacks of potatoes for a fraction of what supermarkets charged, but more than farmers ever got from middlemen.

The potato revolution is a sign that food emergencies no longer only happen to desperately poor people in faraway and desolate areas of Africa and Asia. Food emergencies have become as globalized as everything else.

Until the potato revolution defined a fresh response to crisis, the precedent for Global North reaction was when British farmers and truckers, outraged by fast-rising gas taxes, blockaded delivery of oil trucks in the fall of 2000. On day one of the blockade, there was a panic buying at gas stations. On day two, panic buying spread to supermarkets. On day three, panic turned ugly, provoking a sound bite heard around the world.

Civilization is only “nine meals away from anarchy,” said the head of the UK’s Countryside Agency, Lord Cameron of Dillington. The Lord liked the statement so much that he repeated it in 2007, again to widespread media coverage, warning that on day three, “there will be rats, mayhem, and maybe even murder.”

Lord Cameron’s alarm resonates with a fear–that the veneer of order, complacency, and civilization depends on food being readily and effortlessly available, which in turn hangs on threads of transit routes that can be shut down on a moment’s notice. Chain reactions could be critical with frightening speed, thanks to both the short timeline from disruption to collapse of a logistics system, and the short fuse from civility to civil breakdown when food runs out.

Despite the drama and plain truth of the “nine meals” warning, I am not aware that it’s had any impact on the food industry or government officials charged with security planning in the Global North. I know of no food company or government that has a Plan B for food access in the relatively likely event that Plan A breaks down for a period of time. Some aging baby boomer in a senior position may have posted an old cover of MAD Magazine on his door, and colleagues must have figured Alfred E. Newman’s “What, me worry?” was official policy.

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.

Nature is the third system–a high-risk system in times of “climate chaos” (aka global warming). It’s hard to deny the risks: 820 catastrophes in 2011, mostly weather events, caused a record-setting $380 billion worth of damage according to a 2012 tally by Worldwatch and Munich Reinsurance Company. Yet risk-management efforts are pitiful–less than a billion dollars is invested globally in safeguards against storm damage, according to a 2012 report from the International Panel on Climate Change.

Cities are the fourth high-risk system. Many fast-growing megacities have expanded onto areas near mountains, oceans, and forests that, until recently, sustained the world’s one billion indigenous peoples, who are now deprived of habitat for hunting, fishing, foraging, and fathering, and dependent on a globalized and industrialized food system. Over half the world’s population now lives in cities that show little regard for adequate urban green space or green roofs to support even minimal local food production, or–Belo Horizonte in Brazil is a rare exception–that support peri-urban farmers to grow for nearby customers.

In 2009, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization issued Coping with a Changing Climate, a call to include adaptation, mitigation, and prevention of climate disasters as foundational indicators of food security. But few government officials believe enough in transparency to engage people in discussions, let alone take action.

In the absence of any politicians asking “How do you like those potatoes?” Greece’s potato revolution may be only nine meals away from a community near you.

Wayne Roberts is a food policy analyst and writer, widely respected for his role as the manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council. Excerpted from Spacing, a Canadian quarterly that pushes readers to think critically about how they can shape the public spaces that surround their everyday lives.

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