Welcome to the age of abundance. A time in which edible food gets dumped in landfills and people the world over starve to death. We are spoilt for choice, yet our resources are dwindling. The food web in which humanity is deeply entangled is weakening as water supply decreases, crop variants disappear, energy shortages loom, food prices rise, transport distances expand, and diseases run rampant. A food chain connects all living things within a given environment, based on their dependence on one another to grow and function. The sun provides energy, the soil nutrients, water gives sustenance, consumers absorb, and the remains of predators support the next generation of producers.
For those born in the ‘90s, many would have first been introduced to the concept of a food chain through Disney’s The Lion King. The opening track – The Circle of Life – illustrates the cyclical nature of energy; what is taken from the earth is returned, and what dies gives life to another. Such is the food chain: a network of links between producers, consumers, and decomposers. Similarly, food-supply systems trace the connections between production, distribution, and consumption. It is this system that supports the continuation of humanity.
A weak link in the chain could have disastrous effects. Look at what happens when the military uses food as a weapon of war; cutting off enemy supplies and deliberately destroying their livelihoods. Look at the impact of war-time food-shortage on pregnant women. How their children developed eating disorders or became obese as a biological reaction to previous starvation and mental preparation for potential future scarcity.
Some might say that our problematic relationship with food emerged with the introduction of industrialisation. Several decades since the invention of the steam engine, a theory was introduced that proposed an imminent catastrophe. The idea was that exponential population growth combined with a linear food supply would result in famine or war. As technology advances, resources would increase and the standard of living would improve. This would then trigger, enable and support population growth. If the number of people outnumber the available resources: chaos. This, however, has not happened. Will innovations in food technology match the rate of population growth? Could this minimise the risk of such a crisis? Or will the perpetual presence of poverty and pollution be our downfall?
The first industrial revolution saw a shift from an agrarian way of life to a mechanised system of manufacturing, the second brought about mass production and a dependence on electricity, the third was characterised by automation and globalised production networks, and the fourth industrial revolution is digitising value chains. The industrialisation of agriculture meant that farming was no longer done for small-scale, localised sustenance, but became a global, profit-driven industry. Genetic modifications have led to mutations, pesticides have contributed to the evolution of super-viruses, and urbanisation has reduced arable land and escalated climate instability. The industrialisation of food has resulted in an over-reliance on a limited range of crops and has reduced a natural diversity that would usually protect us from plagues and pandemics. What’s next?
Several nations are currently in a comfort zone where food is an expected constant and individuals are entitled to a range of choices. This exploitative relationship with food is not sustainable. We saw how, when the health crisis of 2020 was made public, many flocked to the shops to stock up on supplies. We panic and extract, rather than consider the long-term implications of our actions or how it would affect those around us who depend on the very same resources.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are camping in a remote, isolated area for the next month, and you suddenly realise that you have forgotten to bring any food; a foundational, physiological need for survival. It is too far for you to safely travel to the nearest town, and it is too long before someone comes back for you. What do you do? Like most nomadic communities who live off the land. You would likely focus your time and energy on securing a stable food supply. It would not make sense to deplete the resources nearest you within the first week if you are intending to survive beyond that. You would need to consider hunting, gathering, growing, and rearing. Your decisions would need to be calculated and consider a time and space beyond the here and now.
The question we should be asking ourselves today is: what happens if there is a significant breakdown in the food chain? This wildcard event may have a low likelihood of occurring in our lifetime, but would have a high impact if it were to play out. It is entirely plausible for something like this to happen. Whether humanity causes its own demise through over-consumption, or if it is through natural disaster that food sources are destroyed, we need to relook our relationship with food and the processes that underpin the supply and demand thereof.
How do contemporary social issues intersect with the symbolic importance of food? What impact does technological innovation have on food production? How do the dynamics of poverty and inequality shape consumption patterns? What is the relationship between food diversity and sustainability? How could regulation and control lead to food instability? These are some of the things we need to consider in our food policies and practices going forward. How do we even begin to combat an emerging food crisis? Well, for starters, “you should never take more than you give”, as the song goes. We need to address supply and demand imbalances at their source, before they get completely out of hand. We have a decision to make: do we eradicate particular practices or do we contain the accessibility of resources? Do we prevent further destruction or do we restore what once was?
What is the source of the problem, anyway? No wild card event occurs in isolation. It is a confluence of issues. Everything is connected. It is for this reason that complex systems can be quite fragile; vulnerable to even the smallest disturbance that plays out in often unexpected or exaggerated ways. A disruption in the food chain can lead to a chain reaction of events. The possibility of a food crisis has been a long time coming. The impact of such could take years or even decades to be fully realised. We do not have the luxury of time on our side – if anything, we have been given early warning signals of the coming change and should act now to prevent possible collapse.
© Marguerite Coetzee 2021