Nine Meals Away from Anarchy

Aggravated by impending climate chaos and policies like Justice in Time delivery, most of the industrial food system is about “nine meals away from anarchy.”

| January/February 2013

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

Photo By Rick Harris

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.