Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eyjafjallajökull eruption should be a wake-up call for local agriculture

The most dramatic thing about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano in Iceland this past week was the closure of European air space to commercial flights. The ash has abated enough now that flights are resuming today. European air traffic controllers are taking heat for the closure, which inconvenienced millions of travellers and ruined some people's vacations, even though it was the right call. Hit your favorite search engine with "1989 Redoubt Volcano 747" to see why.

But beyond the inconvenience to travelers, this interruption to normal air traffic ought to serve as a serious wake-up call to the way food is grown and delivered all over the world.

Consider Britain, which imports 75% of its vegetables from abroad, and as much as 90% of its fresh fruit. That stuff usually comes via air freight, but for the past several days, hasn't. Some markets in England, as of yesterday, were reporting running out of fresh produce and weren't sure when they'd be able to get more. With the air ban lifted, I'm sure deliveries will resume with all due haste.

But what if it hadn't? What if the Eyjafjallajökull hadn't lessened its ash output, and commercial jet operations across Europe had been nixed for months? What then?

Well, systems would adjust, eventually. People would, of course, figure out how to move freight around over land or by sea. And the price of fresh strawberries in England would go through the roof.

All of which ought to serve as a very loud wake-up call for the whole world's food production and delivery system. It ought to be a wake-up call for consumers, too: the practice of shipping food all around the world on planes and freighters is incredibly dangerous.

Our modern food delivery system is modeled after just-in-time inventory practices from the manufacturing sector. When you're making cars, it's great to have parts delivered to you as you need them. It's more efficient than keeping a warehouse full of parts on hand.

Just-in-time delivery models fail if the supply chain breaks for a long time, as could have happened with a more serious Eyjafjallajökull eruption (and, who knows, may yet happen). It's not a big deal, really, if a massive supply-chain failure shuts down an auto plant. Nobody dies. But when the supply-chain for food breaks down, people starve. It's just not a wise model to be using.

The system we have is very good at letting the spoiled consumers in developed nations eat seasonal produce with no regard to the actual calendar. But it is also very brittle. Any major interruption in worldwide shipping, as might be caused by volcanoes, tsunamis, acts of terrorism, economic forces, and so forth, can quickly cause grocery stores to run out of things we take for granted.

If it was just a question of not being able to eat Argentinian strawberries in the middle of a London winter, I wouldn't really care. But it's not. This same brittle system is also being used for staple foods, meats, grains, beans. For grocery stores, it's more efficient: they can keep the shelves stocked without having a massive back-room stocked with cans and bottles.

But the very presence of this brittle delivery system has undermined local agriculture across most of the developed world. Chances are, you've already eaten something today that came from more than 100 miles away from where you live. Chances are, in fact, that more of what you've eaten today has come from far away than has been local.

No problem, when the delivery system works. But as Eyjafjallajökull has shown us, one dinky little volcano in the middle of the Atlantic can bring large chunks of the system to a screeching halt.

Just-in-time delivery is fine for making cars. But it's stupid, un-sustainable, and downright dangerous for keeping people fed. We need a return to local agriculture. It's a question of safety versus luxury. Do you want to be able to eat strawberries in winter, or do you want to know that even if a volcano erupts half way around the world you're still going to be able to put food on your family's table?


Blogger rhondawinter said...

Local food production is our future. Our global economies are in the process of creative destruction. Bicycles, trains, compost and local community gardens are on our sustainable horizon.

12:10 PM  

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