Oil supply shock, food shortages, and potential starvation in Sweden?

PhoenixRisinggc2Off the keyboard of Fenixor

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Published on Peak Resources on October 8, 2015

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In 2013 the Swedish Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Engineering (JTI) released a report about potential impacts on the country’s food supply from sudden oil import shocks. JTI looked at three different scenarios, where oil imports would be redistricted (-25%, -50%, -75%) for a period of 3-5 years. Not enough time to make a transition to some other fuel. 
In the worst case scenario, where 75% of oil imports disappear, the authors stated that the diesel price could increase to some SEK 160/litre, and we would likely experience widespread starvation! Food supplies, in stores and warehouses, would only last for 10-12 days. Swedes don’t even know that the government has said that it’s up to the citizens themself to provide for their own food needs in a crisis situation. Most people seem to believe we still live in the 1970s when Sweden was a socialist country, not any more, not since the neoliberals came into office and started dismantling healthcare, defence, education etc. There is no emergency preparedness!
Without fossil fuels (oil and gas) we wouldn't be able to produce enough food in Sweden. This is partly due to our high food imports (50%)​, large-scale mechanisation of farms, loss of small-scale farmers and high costs (taxes) on farming. Most farm machinery runs on diesel while oil is used for heating and transportation. Areas like Stockholm and parts of Norrland are especially dependent on food imports. For example, the Stockholm region only produces some 5% of the milk consumed and less than 10% of the meat.
Today there are no food or fuel reserves, instead the entire country is totally dependent on “just-in-time” supplies. Again, in the worst case scenario, there will be no cooking oil, 75% less fruits and berries, 67-70% less grains, 40% less milk, and 64% less pigs, chickens and eggs. The only thing increasing is sheep and cow meat since a lot of land only will be used for grazing. Grazing animals get their food from sunlight (grass) and contribute with manure.
Based on SPBI data
Swedes can be kept over the starvation line if only 25% of oil imports disappear, but we will experience food shortages and risk of starvation if a larger oil shock occurs (50-75%). Looking at the export-import data some commentators have estimated that 90% of all oil imports will be gone by 2030. And this is probably a conservative estimate since it doesn’t account for sudden shocks due to an economic crisis, conflict, and so on. 


In a recent opinion poll (2013) two out of every three (63%) Swedes stated that they wouldn't be able to handle a shorter crisis. People in Gotland, Öland (islands) and Småland were most worried about a future crisis (49% think they will experience a crisis). Most people (58%) can only manage for about one week but it's likely that the respondents underestimate how much resources are actually required for everyday life. For example, water (3 litres/day) and heating during the winter.


Sweden's food supply is in any case extremely vulnerable to a shortage in oil imports, and Swedes are not prepared despite a lacking government. Our dear politicians have absolutely no plan on changing this, instead they claim “we need to stay competitive” totally missing the point that growth is over! (0.3% per capita GDP growth the last decade). The situation is not made better by half of all our oil imports now coming from Russia that we are engaging in trade wars with (sanctions etc). 

Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on July 13, 2015

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I am back from two days of full immersion in a meeting on something rather new for me: the world's food supply. I am still reeling from the impact. Whenever you go in some depth into anything; you see how immensely more complex things are in comparison to the pale shadow of the world that you perceive in the glittering screen of your TV. Everything is complex, and everything complex becomes wicked once you start seeing it as a problem. And wicked problems usually generate wicked solutions. (image from Wikipedia)


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Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g. here).

This said, let's get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world's food supply. I'll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one's hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world's food supply is a "problem"? Yes, if you note that about half of the world's human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world's population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really "wicked"? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors…… and more, including the fact that people don't just eat "calories", they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as "you can't do just one thing."

Once you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to "solve the problem". The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won't change as a consequence. It is the "look, it is simple" approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, "look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved". What is meant with "this" varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry "let's go GMOs!" (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food's nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more fragile and less resilient, vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the "'look, it is simple" strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another "look, it is simple" approach is 'if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone'. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy "green food" in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kind of "green" food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the "let's go local" strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to "solve the food supply problem."

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the "look, it is simple" mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs). Not so easy, but suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where "population" means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won't work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don't realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn't see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn't see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet's subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the level of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is "overshoot". That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers understanding the consequences of what they are doing. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to "solve the food problem". That's more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn't work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the "spaghetti diagram" syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the "food supply problem"? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: "in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation." As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can't solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome


* Once you tackle the food problem, you can't ignore the "third world" situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, "linearizing" complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the "circular" approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don't have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that "look, it is simple: just let's get rid of waste" is exactly parallel to the "zero waste" approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the "zero waste" idea simply can't work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn't mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can't build up a "zero waste" industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the "participatory management" approach, (see, e.g., the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.

The Food Pantry Chronicles

Off the keyboard of RE

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on November 7, 2014


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Day 1: Thursday, November 6, 2014

FoodBank1As I mentioned over in The SNAP Card Gourmet thread, in conjunction with trying to live on a Poverty Level Budget, I am also Volunteering at one of the local privately run Food Charity Pantries on Thursdays.  The Pantry is staffed by Volunteers and is Open Mon-Thu from 1-5PM.

It is housed in an old building with no markings, you have to know it is there and what it is.  It is on an oddly shaped triangular piece of property across from a defunct rail line in Palmer AK.  I’ll get some pics eventually, but for the first day I didn’t want to put off any of the people by shooting pics.  It was at one time a home, then a local grocery store for a while, at least that is what one of the veteran volunteers told me.  I don’t know how long it has been operating as a Food Charity Pantry.

The sources of Food come from Da Federal Goobermint, local Farmers, local Food Stores that donate some stuff, and Food Drives done by various churches and organizations like the Boy Scouts etc.  The Mormons dropped on us several ENORMOUS bags of powdered milk and flour and dried beans that have to be divied up into individual portions.

There are regulations of course that have to be followed from Da Goobermint on handing out the Goobermint stuff, there appears to be more discretion in distributing out the stuff that is donated by private organizations.  For Da Goobermint stuff, you can come in once a month, and by no means could you feed yourself on just this stuff.  However, observing the size of the boxes and what went in them given to the patrons who came in today, in total I think you probably can make it through 2 weeks at least on one of these boxes.

http://www.hbcfitchburg.com/sites/default/files/outreach/food_pantry.jpgGetting my feet wet today, my first job was in taking various boxes of Donated Canned Food and placing on the shelves by type.  Canned Chili goes here, canned veggies there, tomato sauce another shelf, etc.  It’s not too carefully organized because what you get in changes all the time, although some things are very regular, like canned soups.

Organizing up the latest round of donations with one other Veteran Volunteer took about 2 hours.  The Canned Food area is in a room about 400 sq ft I would estimate, but very odd dimensions so it is tough to be exact.  Also in this area is a large Walk-In Freezer where much of the Meat and Fish is stored, but there also are 2 or 3 other large Chest Freezers which have a lot of perishable meats in them as well.

After finishing organizing up the Canned Goods, my next project was making Bags of Spuds from large 50 lb bags donated by local Alaska Farmers and stored down in the Basement, which is very cool and good storage place for root veggies.  I used old shopping bags from stores to make each portion, which was about 5 lbs.  After bagging and tying them up, I brought them upstairs to the main distribution room, and the clients could take one on the way out the door.  Not sure if everyone was eligible though for one of these bags.

Far as the patrons are concerned, it was mostly Old Folks today, though there were some teenagers as well who came along with grandma and carried out her stuff.  Mostly White folks.  When I dropped in there last week to Volunteer, there was a family of four with 2 little girls around 5 and 8 or so, they were Natives.

http://www.omro-wi.com/uploads/4/9/7/0/4970689/8310913_orig.jpg?1372783667Over the 4 hour period we were Open today, I would estimate we served around 16-20 people/families, around 4-5/hour.  There is one person working at the laptop checking off what is given out to each person and they have a certain amount of flexibility in selecting stuff to go in their box, so each person takes 10-15 minutes to serve.  Another Volunteer goes and finds the stuff they ask for if we have it.  With One Trip per Family allowed per month, with 4 days of operation/week, we can probably serve around 350 folks in need of Food Assistance.  There are I think 2 other Food Pantry Charities in the neighborhood, if they are similar in size, then total would be around 1000 Families/month, which I think is plenty for our size community right now, since total population of Palmer is only around 6500 Human Souls.  In order to be Eligible, you have to prove your Residency in Palmer, and have your Social Security Card, proof of Income etc.  I am not sure yet what the income eligibility requirements are, how low your income needs to be.  Over 60 folks do seem to have additional eligibility, not sure how that works yet either.

Given that Palmer is a Farming community with a small population, I think it would be quite easy to ramp up similar Food Distribution to serve more of the population if/when there is Dollar Collapse and failure of JIT shipping.  However, over time the amount of Canned Goods would begin to disappear, and this would have to be compensated for by what can be produced locally.  The variety would drop considerably of course.  However, as long as the transition was made over a couple of years, I don’t see any reason why anybody up here would Starve or need to go Cannibalistic.

Other things I am not yet certain of is how this works in conjunction with the SNAP Card program.  I THINK it is entirely separate, even the Federal Goobermint end, so you can get a Box of Food from us in ADDITION to what you can buy with your SNAP card.  Together, this is DEFINITELY plenty of food to eat each month.  I am pretty sure you also could hit the other Food Charities here once a month, because this is not Networked so nobody at one Charity knows what another Charity has handed out to a given Family.

It would be much harder/impossible to do something similar in Big Shities, because the population is so large and because once JIT distribution fails, these locations do not have local food production to fall back on.  Another good reason to GTFO of Dodge and move to a low population zone with local food production.

It’s really nice to be doing something Local now as well as writing on the net in covering the collapse.  All the folks volunteering were nice Old Ladies, I was the only Male there, although there is supposedly one other guy who volunteers and drives around to make Pickups from the local farms.  We are fortunate that real collapse hasn’t hit up here yet, although definitely there is a significant portion of the population in need of Food Assistance.  Since the SNAP Card program probably will not last in perpetuity, it is important to get these Local Food Charities functioning well to be able to handle larger numbers as time goes by here and more folks fall off the economic cliff.

I will keep a Diary here of my days working at the Pantry.  It’s a very good feeling inside doing this, so I recommend it to every Doomer not himself or herself yet off the cliff.  Even the Bible says this is a good thing to do.


Matthew 25:35

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

Isaiah 58:10

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

Proverbs 28:27

Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.

James 2:14-18

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.


On this topic, Panentheists and Christians (real ones) can agree.


Podcast- Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh) of The Automatic Earth on Currency Issues: Part 1

Off the microphones of Nicole Foss, RE & Monsta

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on August 28, 2013


Discuss at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

How will the monetary system implode on itself?  Will Inflation, Hyper-Inflation or Deflation rule the day as the system seizes up?  What will occur with Asset Values and Derivatives?  Who has the strongest claims to underlying wealth remaining in the system?  Can Gold & Silver substitute for a failing Fiat Monetary System?  How will the Just In Time Shipping paradigm react to dislocations in the Credit Markets?  Will Financial Contagion overtake the Supply Chains?

These and other questions are discussed in the latest Diner Podcast with Nicole Foss, Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth.  Nicole is a former Editor of The Oil Drum Canada, and was a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, where she specialized in nuclear safety in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and conducted research into electricity policy at the EU level.

The second part of the Podcast with Nicole will focus on Energy Issues, and will be available for listening on the Diner next week.  In this podcast, Nuclear Energy will be discussed as well as Renewable Energy issues.

In addition, in the next few weeks, the Diner will begin Vidcasts featuring multiple Bloggers, Researchers and Authors discussing and debating the various topics of Collapse Dynamics.  The first of these Vidcasts will be focused on the upcoming Occupy Monsanto demonstrations scheduled for September 17, 2013.  However, if the War in Syria escalates over the next couple of weeks, this may provide additional discussion material.

I discuss the Upcoming Diner Vidcasts in the next Episode of I Spy Doom.  You get a nice little tour of the Last Great Frontier of Alaska from the Passenger Seat of my Ford Explorer SUV in this one also.  LOL.


Fear and the 3-day Food Supply

Off the keyboard of Toby Hemenway

Published originally on Pattern Literacy

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One of the scary factoids in circulation these days is the revelation that grocery stores hold only a three- or four-day supply of food. People wield this statistic to argue that our food system is appallingly insecure and in grave danger of failure. We’re only a few days from starvation, goes the frightening story, and we’re liable one day to find our supermarket shelves empty and the populace in panic.

To accept this forecast uncritically, though, means ignoring how complex systems work. We can scare ourselves by selectively focusing on a small piece of a larger picture and behaving as if that tiny bit were the whole story. It’s a natural tendency: Any organism interested in surviving needs to focus on what’s going wrong much more than what’s going right. But in this case, believing the tale of empty shelves may distract us from more urgent problems.

Storing large amounts of grains and other foods in cities is an ancient strategy, and it hasn’t protected against famine. Many European cities and walled towns kept grain supplies designed to carry them through hard times, yet, according to historian Fernand Braudel, famine remained a regular visitor. Continent-wide, famines that killed 10% or more of the population struck Europe 13 times in the 16th century, 11 times in the 17th, and 16 times in the 18th century. Local famines were far more common, yet most towns had large granaries. With a little thought, we can see why storing food in public granaries isn’t an effective strategy. How much food would a city of 50,000 need to store to get through months of utter crop failure? The math is brutal: the town would be almost knee deep in grain. And, more urgently, during a food panic, how many pounds of grain being handed to you by the state would make you calm down? Five? Ten? That’s only a couple of day’s supply for a small family. During a food panic, I suspect the government would need to hand out 20 to 50 pounds of grain per family every few days to calm a frightened populace. And during a panic, even the largest food storages are emptied quickly. The enemy here is fear, not the food system. In my book, anyone shouting “Run to the stores and buy as much food as you can!” deserves a special place in hell.

Storing more than a few days supply of food within a city makes little sense for a number of reasons. It requires dedicated storage buildings in cities—where space is most expensive. We’d need security forces to protect the food, a bureaucracy to run the logistics, and all that food must be cycled in and out for freshness. Plus, imagine a half million or more hungry people all converging on central granaries expecting to be fed. The logistical problems are enormous: think FEMA or TSA, and you can see why it’s the wrong level to operate at. A much more sensible place for emergency food storage is at the household level. If you are worried about food shortages, get your own stash and store as much as makes you comfortable. In designing a solution to a problem, it’s critical to intervene at the proper level, and here, the household is a far more effective level than the state.

Another reason for not instituting centralized food warehouses is that food systems are based much more on flow than they are on storage, and they usually have been. Claiming that our strategy for food delivery is precarious is not thinking in terms of dynamic whole systems, in which flows are far greater than storage—though both are important. Imagine someone panicking because they suddenly realized that their yard’s soil only contains enough water for four days of plant growth. That may be true, but we know also that water is constantly flowing in—storage is only one bit of the picture. Moisture is being pulled upward through the soil, rain is likely before long, plus we have the water line from the street, household graywater, and all the other ways that the tiny bit of water on that land is being renewed continuously. Yes, it’s possible that all the water delivery systems could break down simultaneously, just as the whole food system could, but that entails large-scale network failures—the utterly perfect storm—that would likely send signals well in advance and affect much more than water or food.

If we don’t look at flows, and don’t think in terms of whole systems, we can make ourselves very scared about the complex systems surrounding us. I call this tendency “drawing the box too small.” If we draw a boundary at, say, the city limits of Chicago and measure how much food is available within it, we can get frightened at how little there is: a few days supply. But that’s not really Chicago’s whole food supply, is it? If we enlarge the boundary to, say, what can be delivered to the city within an hour’s drive, suddenly that food supply contains all the farms and gardens, warehouses, cold-storage units, processing plants, feedlots, ships anchored in Lake Michigan full of grain, distribution centers, rail depots, and other sources of food within a 50-mile radius. That’s a lot more than a four-day supply. Then, enlarge the box to a day’s drive and the food supply will last for weeks. And if we increase the box to include the entire nation or continent—which is still only a part of our food system—we now have an essentially infinite supply of food, renewed every growing season, since the US is still a net food producer.

What makes think that something as unnatural as city limits is the boundary of a city’s food supply? And what kind of catastrophe would limit a city to the food within it? Obviously, a local disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake could do this, but it also could destroy any food grown or stored there, or start a panic that depletes even the largest supply. (Or takes martial law to protect it and draconian rules to distribute it. I’d rather store my own.) Even Hurricane Katrina didn’t prevent food from reaching New Orleans before many people went hungry. Perhaps a rupture of the transportation system would do it. But what would cause this? Rapid destruction of large parts of the highway or rail system is unlikely except in war or national strike (and striking workers and their families need to eat, too). These networks are highly distributed and redundant: There are many routes to any city. A major and sudden fuel shortage might do it, but I suspect that we’d quickly see rationing and redistribution of fuel away from many non-food uses, since governments know that hungry people start revolts. And actual transportation of food only uses 4% of the total energy in the food system (Weber and Matthews, Env. Sci. Technology, 2008, 42: 3508), so a fuel shortage would have less effect on moving food into cities, and more on the production and processing of food, which is a slower process that would unwind over weeks and months, not days.

There’s a lot wrong with our food system, but its “just in time” nature is not one of the flaws. We need to ask why the idea of four days of food on grocery shelves scares us, and why it makes us believe we have a precarious food system. Cities have always drawn from the surrounding countryside for their food. Why is it hard to trust that the current food system will continue to deliver food into cities? I suspect that part of our fear is that the size and number of components of the food systems is so vast that we can’t easily grasp how it works or believe that something that complex can continue to function long. It’s like worrying that your circulatory system—with its billions of red blood cells, pulsing lung tissue, ornately branching veins and arteries, and complicated gas exchange network—will fail and you won’t be able to get oxygen into your blood. It makes me dizzy just to think about it. Fortunately, complex adaptive systems such as our bodies and our food supply continue to function without our conscious control; they are highly networked and on many levels.

The long-term storage for our food supply is on the land, widely distributed, where it belongs. The food system has many tiers, and the “food stored in cities” level is a minor component. The system encompasses many levels of intermediate food storage components such as farms, cooperative grain-storage towers, processing plants, warehouses, shipping in transit, and distribution centers, each holding or supplying a significant percentage of our food supply and operating over a timeframe of weeks and months. It is a system in which flow makes up more of the capacity than storage. With a perishable good such as food, that’s as it should be. Having more than a few day’s supply of food stored at the end of the chain, in cities, would be a misallocation of resources away from the sources that generate the food and direct its constant stream toward the user. It’s smart for residents to store emergency food in their home, in whatever quantity makes them feel safe. But an expensive revamping of our food system to build collective infrastructure for urban food storage makes little sense when flow is the key element of any food system.

Our food system has many flaws. We need more locally grown food. The current system is far too dependent on fossil fuels, is concentrated in too few seed varieties and a handful of corporations, is subsidized toward unhealthy and unwise products, and wastes prodigious quantities of water and nutrients. But an absence of giant state-run granaries is not one of its failings. In a complex system, flows are at least as important as storages, and is the appropriate place to focus. A secure food system stems far more from the flow of food and the existence of many levels of nearby and faraway storages than from the amount of food on grocery shelves. To claim that our just-in-time system is precarious is drawing the box far too small, and ignores the flow-based nature of the complex, constantly readjusting systems that we depend on.

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