Food Security and Sustainability in a
Just-in-time Global Supply Chain
by Brian McGavin
The COVID-19 virus and its economic impact diverts our attention from every other issue right now, but it doesn’t mean dumping the growing sustainability and ecological challenges we face. Politicians can’t be let off the hook without such accountability.
Key issues like food security, where the UK averages just 50% self-sufficiency and the transformation over the last 15 years to dependence on ‘just-in-time’ global supply chains in a declining oil and energy landscape, pose immense challenges. All countries must look to rebalancing economies from the mantra of endless development and economic growth.
The UK and many other countries under growing population pressures cannot keep consuming ever more green landscapes and productive farmland for housing and business units. The pressure to build on floodplains as climate change increases the severity of rainfall in many areas and drought in arid zones with declining fresh water aquifers, cannot continue.
More demand and speculation has seen property prices reach unaffordable levels for many, while the price of food has plummeted in recent decades, falling from over 30 percent of incomes to an average of 8.2 percent in the UK and 6.4 percent in the United States. The food industry’s pursuit of cheapness and convenience above all else has left us hooked on chemical fertilizers and plastic packaging. The hidden costs of cheap food is much higher, with destroyed forests for grazing pasture, depleted aquifers, toxic slurry and indiscriminate use of antibiotics to fight disease transmission in farm animals.
Industrial farming methods are rapidly making soils infertile. The UN warned in December 2014 that 95 percent of our food comes from the soil. If current rates of depletion continue, the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years.
Opportunities for diseases to move between species in unregulated wild animal markets in China and East Asia have seen contagion and several global pandemics emerge since 2000. These markets are hell on earth for animals stacked in cages and slaughtered on the spot amongst blood and faeces, because the customers demand ‘freshness’. China has, for now, stopped such practices, but they may continue illegally. The Ebola virus is believed to have emerged from eating wild animal ‘bushmeat’ in several West African countries.
The immense challenge the virus brings shows that we can rapidly change the way we live and the way we think in ways that may also help us transition to a more sustainable pathway for our children and the planet we take for granted. Many are now calling for solidarity and focus on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War. A resolve necessary to challenge the mantra of endless growth and resource overconsumption in a finite world, enabling a transition to lower economic throughput, ecological balance and sustainability. Alongside this we must boost the ‘green’ economy where there is great opportunity to create employment.
Reducing unnecessarily abundant air traffic flows is already bringing down emission levels and pollution. Fish are returning to Venice’s canals after daily cruise ships and diesel pollution have been kept away.
We need to rethink every aspect of our throw-away, growth-obsessed society and work towards an ecologically coherent steady-state economy that gives us quality of life in balance with renewable resources.