disruption: food

If we are what we eat, must we eat what we are?  Christ, I hope not!  Based on behaviour, homo sapiens isn’t very appetizing.  Continuing on the theme of disruption, Irwin Adam at The Walrus Talks recently reminded his audience that our method of sustaining ourselves is unsustainable.  He wasn’t warning or threatening us, as end time prophets normally do.  Adam was telling us what we already know about food.

It’s like a shameful little secret we all share, except that it’s not a secret if everyone already knows it.  But knowing it is different than hearing it.  There are many people who prefer not to think about it, and many more who prefer not to act.

When a minority of us behave shamefully, it’s easier for the rest of us to follow suit.  We’re all part of a population divided between advocates who lead change, defenders of the status quo, and the great majority in the middle, who know that change is inevitable and are waiting until they have no choice.

The middle position feels neutral, favouring neither the advocates for change, nor defenders of the status quo.  Unfortunately, while we wait, we behave like the change resisters, which emboldens them and retards the pace of progress.  The result is that our choices evaporate over time, and when the predicted crisis finally arrives, we may not like the options that are left.

Isn’t it that way with food?  The appetite for better food is evident, yet we turn a blind eye to the effects our production and consumption habits have on the capacity of the planet to nourish us.

Ethically produced, aesthetically appealing, and nutritionally complete food is expensive.  While obesity plagues the poor, and college kids in Cowichan sweaters volunteer on communal dirt farms, the rich line up in their Land Rovers for organics and nutraceuticals at Whole Foods.  Meanwhile, the rest of us - by which I mean almost everyone - continues to make the slow transition in their shopping habits from big box, semi-processed, over packaged, foreign sourced, nutritionally depleted foods, to something better for us and the planet.

A quick point on the distinction between the wellbeing of mankind and the health of the planet:  there is no distinction.  This is an even more shameful secret, and one that deserves more attention.  Ruin the soil, air, and water, and the whole kale vs collards debate is rendered moot.  Along with the collapse of the false distinction between human and environmental health is the dissolution of the wall between 1st world and 3rd world problems.  Soil, air, and water, and the vectors of pollution, disease, vermin, migration, energy, and food, have little respect for national boundaries.  War, famine, and refugees have none at all.

Forgive me if I’m repeating my favourite example, but in Toronto there are grocery stores, at certain times of year, selling apples from Asia, South Africa, New Zealand, South America, and California, but none from Canada.  Just a few hundred kilometres west, lie the orchards near Georgian Bay, where there are megatons of apples being produced.

I’m sure there’s a rationale for this, but it is nonetheless obscene to imagine an apple leaving port in New Zealand, chugging around the Horn of Africa, under billows of black diesel smoke, past shores teeming with hungry children, to ports in Europe and North America, where local apples are binned or used in bulk for juices and concentrates.  Now do the same thing for dozens of other staples, and you realize that there is vast inefficiency in a food distribution systems awash in fuel subsidies, price manipulation by marketing boards, and tariff fixing through preferential trade agreements.

How else do you explain that Australia is the number one wine exporter to the UK?  Imagine, boats, laden with bottles of merlot, steaming north near the end of their journey, past the industrial ports of Spain, Portugal, and France, en route to London.  Is it the product better?  Is it more abundant?  Is the cost of production less?  Is it cheaper to ship over long distances than from across the Channel?  No. No. No. No. And, no.

So, never mind the desecration of our lands from irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides, and our food from genetic modification, hormones, factory farming, and monoculture cultivation.  Think about how much petroleum is needlessly burned getting food from the place where it’s grown to the place where it’s consumed.  Although you can put a new crop in the ground, year after year, no one is putting new oil back down the wells, and even if they were, the impacts on air quality and climate change will eventually end this absurdity.  Let the great multinational food corporations try to explain it away, but the truth is that they can only compete on price in foreign markets because their company ships are afloat in subsidies and exemptions at home.

Of course, Adam dramatized food packaging waste in the usual way.  These dramatizations illustrate the macro effect of something we experience at a micro level, by quantifying it in ways intended to shock us.  You know, like, if you fold a piece of paper in half a thousand times, it’s thickness would reach to the moon.  Whatever the actual number is, I’ve never made it past 18 folds, which doesn’t get you anywhere.  But the argument he presented was about water bottles, which, lain end to end, or melted down and poured over the earth’s surface, would encircle or cover the globe a few times over – who can remember, precisely.

However, a more effective method of illustrating the macro effects of micro phenomenon, at least in terms of the unsustainable movement of foodstuffs between global markets, would be to look at the implications of national debt on crop selection.  Where compound interest on debt has driven small nations to focus on cash crops for export, like coffee, bananas, or quinoa, the local population is often malnourished or forced to rely on imported processed foods because the land, the distribution, and marketing system is all geared to paying off foreign debt.

Compound interest produces real numbers, requiring no dramatic visualizations.  It goes like this... If a weak or corrupt government in an underdeveloped country takes on unsupportable loans from first world financiers, then squanders the money on military adventures or socks it away in Swiss bank accounts, the compounding interest will grow the debt to the point where the country has no choice but to turn agriculture away from nourishing the local population, diverting land and labour to serve export markets.  Every percentage point of interest matters, and the outcome is as real paper stairs to the moon or causeways of water bottles across the Atlantic.

So, not only is our global food “system” unsustainable, it is also irrational.  And if unsustainable practices aren’t obviously irrational, it’s only because we’re all keeping our understanding of the problem secret from one another.  It’s irrational because a web of government and corporate considerations distort the value equation at every stage of the supply chain, and it is unsustainable because demand is growing faster than capacity, while we’re failing to adequately nourish whole regions and classes of the existing populations, and while we’re devastating the natural environment (as I've pointed out previously in relation to food waste, and food banks).

We can design systems, abstracting from multiple perspectives, addressing different interests, and deploying benign technologies, to achieve our global food objectives.  We want to nourish everyone, at a price they can afford, without destroying the planet, and we want to do it with all the efficiencies the free market can achieve.  Instead, we have a “system” that’s glutted in places, with scarcity elsewhere, larded with public money, unconscionably wasteful and destructive, highly profitable in parts of the industry and impoverishing at others, staggering spastically, ever-nearer to collapse.

Just as there are change advocates, hoping to mitigate the effects of our profligacy, and change resisters, hoping to suppress the “secret” of unsustainability, there are also  opposing directions of possible change.  For some, there is a nostalgic food past, and for others, there is a dystopic food future, and we are left to choose between these paths.

The Land Rovers in the Whole Foods parking garage are the nostalgics.  They want their food to be fresh, nutritious, and pure – and they are willing to pay any price to get it.  They are the ones most apt to say, “what price is too high for something you put into your body?”

They have a point, in terms of priority at least.  Nothing else you buy will have as direct an effect on your wellbeing as your food.  Good food, obviously, is better for you and your loved ones than bad food.  However, these people can afford to set this priority more easily than marginal families.  Most people have to sacrifice something important to give food the highest priority.  Wealthy people don’t have such a difficult choice.  They can have the best of everything.  There are exceptions, but they prove the rule.

The dystopics use a variant of the end times theme to make their case.  If the oceans continue to die at the current rate, population growth continues unchecked, global warming creates larger deserts, petroleum reserves continue to deplete, and water becomes an ever more precious commodity, we’ll all wind up eating genetically modified foods, synthetic facsimiles of natural foods, and new categories of essential nutrients, like insect protein.

Whether they actually believe we’ll all be eating grasshoppers like popcorn, or they’re just trying to scare us straight, the basic assumption of the end times argument is worth examining.  It’s an “if, then” argument, and it’s validity depends on the premise that nothing changes.  The future is a straight line, extrapolated from history.

However, human behaviour rarely conforms to a straight-line trajectory, tending to deviate over time as consequences become apparent.  Aren’t we already seeing this trend-bending at work in the contraction of peak oil forecasts?  Of course, we were conscious of the devastation that oil scarcity would cause, including price escalations, war, transportation crises, and the resettlement of remote populations – all facts of life in The Road Warrior.  However, the price escalation resulting from oil scarcity, perhaps also factoring in the cost of wars for foreign crude, have caused that straight line to start bending.  We see it in the accelerating adoption of electric cars and hybrids, in the redesign of cities around better mass transit systems, massive conservation initiatives in government and industry, and investments in alternate energy sources.

The result is already evident in the relatively modest rise in gasoline prices and the maintenance of a healthy reserve, despite the continued depletion of oil underground.  If this trend continues, watch what happens to the Alberta tar sands projects, which are financially dependent on global shortages and steep price increases, premised on an increasing demand for oil.  As the price goes up, alternatives are found, causing demand to go down, making the cost of extraction unsupportable.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  The great granddaddy of end times talk was Thomas Malthus, who persuaded the educated world that population growth will always exceed available resources, and overpopulation is only corrected, never deterred, by the spectre of famine and strife.  Although this was widely accepted at the time, there was scant evidence in support of it and much to contradict it.  By the 20th century, it became quite clear that the best way to control population was to educate and empower women, for example.  Yet, you’ll still see charts predicting steep population growth based on the Malthusian premise that nothing will change human behaviour between the times of plenty and scarcity until the ensuing catastrophe.  If he were among us now, Malthus would be publishing books of bug recipes in time for the inevitable failure of the food industry.

Human history is littered with stories of disruptions.  Exploration brought unknown edibles to continents in need, war and disease brought famines, geological and climate events flooded or parched crops, and huge new tracts of arable land have been put under the plow by imperial powers.

So where is the possibility of a tactical disruption that leads to a positive outcome for both the food nostalgics and the apocalyptic change advocates?  Is there a clear event, moment, or process that helps to know what the future will look like and how the food industry, government, or consumers should adapt?  I can’t find it.

Still, the end times arguments are relevant, and change is coming.  Recently, the LA Times reported that Whole Foods is rolling out a new plant-based, tuna substitute, called, 'Ahimi'.  Product development was motivated by the rapid depletion of tuna stocks, and it is designed to have the appearance, smell, and mouthfeel of raw fish when served in the form of nigiri.

Here’s the catch (pardon the pun).  As a new direction, set in response to the imminent collapse of natural supply, Ahimi, like tofurkey and gluten-free cake, compromises the intent of both the food nostalgic and the pioneer.  The refined palette of the Whole Foods customer is sure to discern the difference between this painstakingly prepared slice of tomato and the quivering, bloody slice of tuna, shipped by air-freight from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan.  Yet this counterfeit will sell at a premium price, which doesn’t really fit the target market for futuristic insect protein developers, hoping to feed the masses and save the planet.

From my lay perspective, it appears that neither side will get their catalytic moment.  Despite eroding food security, affecting people on every continent, and despite the technical and economic capability for system change globally, the pace and pattern of change looks dismally familiar.  It appears to be following the modified end times curve, with pressure gradually rising in a long slow trajectory until behavior reflects anticipation of an imminent disaster – a disaster that never quite arrives.

It is in the self-perpetuating nature of commerce and politics to delay change until the profitability and the popularity of innovation tips in favour of something new.  At that point, at the crest of the long arc, it may be possible to identify a culminating disruption, but as a cause of upheaval in a globalized industry like food, it isn’t significant enough to plan your whole business strategy on surfing the next breaking wave.  When the time frame is widened to look the long chain of intermediate processes and events, from initiation to conclusion, the phenomenon longingly described as a disruption looks more like an effect than a cause and more superficial than the profound forces that built pressure and elevated the trajectory of change enough for the culminating moment to occur.

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