The Food Distribution System and the Energy System
Today I was thinking about our food system here in America. Of course, it’s the same the world over. Our food system is a very precarious system indeed, relying on other systems to keep it functioning the way it should.
I’m not saying that it relies on only three other systems, but let’s pretend that’s true. Now, imagine our food system is a three-legged stool. With all three legs planted snuggly on terra firma, everything is fine. The stool sits there securely and functions as, well, a stool. The seat of the stool is our food system, and the three legs, let’s call them oil, just-in-time inventory and supply. There is a lot more to it than that, but this will suffice for the point. Now, imagine that one of those legs breaks, just snaps in two. What happens to the stool? Here on Earth, the stool, now being unevenly supported by only two legs, will fall over.
The same will happen to our food system if one of its legs, one of its systems, break down.
Our food system is held up and made functional by a series of systems. Let’s go a little deeper into what they are and how every one of them affects us via the food system.
The Energy System
Oil. Oil literally drives the food system. The food distribution system rides mainly on back of the trucking system, the big rig trucks that transport food to all corners of our nation. If something were to happen to the diesel, all those trucks would be sitting idle. Back in 2008, truckers threatened to go on strike because diesel fuel was reaching almost $5 a gallon on average. It was costing them more to drive their trucks than they were getting paid to do so.
Especially the owner-operator trucks. That wasn’t some country coming over and bombing all our refineries. That was just the cost of fuel had gotten too damn high. And our entire food distribution system would have come to a grinding halt. So there’s that leg.
Just-In-Time Inventory System
How about this system? In the technology age, grocery stores and chains have become so efficient in the way they run inventory through their establishments that they don’t hardly store any of it. They have employed a Just-In-Time (JIT) inventory system which allows for very little overhead. What comes in on Friday’s shipment will be gone by Monday or Tuesday. That is fine because there is another shipment coming in on Sunday just in time to restock those emptying shelves. Manufacturers use this model as well. It’s very smart and it has become a regular thing in businesses that used to hold inventory under the older Just-In-Case system.
The problem with this very efficient inventory system is that any hiccup along the way to the store can leave shelves bare. And some of this inventory is sourced thousands of miles away. When you are picking out that nice head of lettuce in January, you aren’t looking at California lettuce. It’s January. You’re probably looking at Argentine produce that came a long way through many potential points of failure. If that trucker’s strike had taken hold and even lasted a month, the whole JIT system would have fallen apart. The farmers would’ve gotten backed up, produce would be rotting in warehouses and depots all along the way, all that lot of incoming inventory: wasted. Like a train that leaves the station, it takes a while to get back up to speed. Meanwhile, back at the store, the shelves have been stripped of everything but the dust. These JIT models keep an average of 3 to 4 days of inventory on the shelves. 3 to 4 DAYS! I had more than that as a bachelor! So even when the strike breaks, the stores don’t get restocked, there’s nothing for the trucks to deliver to the stores. Maybe dry goods. Stores have to wait twice as long for the distribution pool to fill up again. Quite a precarious system. And there’s another leg.
The Supply System
The supply system component of the food system can be disrupted in a number of ways. Especially when we’re talking about sourcing products on an international level. Governments have a say in where their countries will export to. A conflict could arise and we could be cut off from this or that, e.g., oil, food imports, etc. Tariffs on goods could ruffle feathers. A bad drought or an unusually wet season could destroy crops that year or that decade. Government regulations could get in the way. A bacteria or fungus could halt all trade of a particular product. If a plant disease has infected a country’s fruit crop, we wouldn’t want it brought here to infect our orchards costing us millions or billions while destroying our crops. There are many, many points of failure in this system as well. And again, there’s another leg. Kick that one out and the whole system collapses.
That is just a few of the main systems. And again, even they are intertwined with smaller subsystems that prop them up. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is so much that you yourself can do to lessen your dependence on the food system. In my next post, I want get into what these things are.
Until then, my friends,