The more things change, the more they stay the same. Do we choose to embrace change and the opportunities that come with it or do we resist and defiantly continue to do things as we have always done? The former invites possibility and risk while the latter invokes predictability and comfort. It is human nature to seek control and consistency, at least to some degree. It is also part of the human condition to desire growth and movement, at least to some extent.
When considering what makes us human, are we all that different from other living – or even non-living – things? James Scott (in his assessment of the Tanner lectures on human values) points out that not only do we gather, but we are gathered. Through processes of domesticating the natural world we too have become domesticated. We have both shaped the environment around us and been shaped by it in turn. Essentially, as Scott indicates, there are four domestications: fire, plants, animals, and us. Each with its own source and transfer of energy and life. Each with its own constraints; parasite, predator, pathogen, and the like.
It is often argued that this was necessary for our survival as a species. Consider the power of cooking with fire (or electricity); to remove disease and bacteria, to enhance flavour, to alter texture. Consider the transformation that occurred when nomads settled and tamed the fauna and flora around them; no longer needing to travel into unknown territories to secure food and water. Look at how far we have come: from hunting and gathering to growing and rearing, from trading and buying to discovering and engineering. Where to next?
Picture this. If we were to continue on our current trajectory – of complex food supply mechanisms, of placing strain on food chains, and of an uneven distribution of food surplus and shortage in various parts of the world – where would we be in a decade from now? What could be the future consequences of past causes and current conditions? What would be the impact on our people, planet, profit, power, and processes? Let us unpack each of these.
First, people. Here’s some food for thought. Yes, food sustains us in its material form and in the literal sense, but it is also imbued with symbolic importance. Food can connect us to people and places through ritual, belief, and knowledge. Beyond its capacity to provide us with nutrients and indulgence, it is a source of creativity and expression. Food can be a form of differentiation as well as a means of bringing people together.
Much of our modern life depends on food. Some of the biggest concerns that plague us are about food: whether we have too little or too much of it, and how our consumption impacts beauty, aging, and hunger. We entangle food with identity, belonging, responsibility, memory, inspiration, and so many other facets of what makes us human. What would be the social impact of a food chain break down?
Second, planet. The Earth gives and it takes away. Ranging from abundance to scarcity, from diversity to homogeneity. Our relationship with the environment is a constant push and pull, give and take. It is no secret that climate change is upon us and that we play a role in it. How long have we explored and exploited what nature provides? How many ways have we tamed land, air, sea, and everything in between? We draw lines between public and private spaces, between rural and urban settlements, and between nation and neighbour. We cycle from birth, growth, life, decline, and death. What happens if we break the chains? What would be the environmental impact of a food chain break down?
Third, profit. Perhaps another domestication is that of value. We trade, exchange, and purchase items and services of value. Time is money; both of which can be saved, spent, and wasted. As people settled into villages, towns, and cities, there was a shift from agrarian practices for local subsistence purposes to large-scale farming for profit. No longer needing to simply feed your immediate family, but transporting food across vast distances to generate an income. Markets have become intricate in their workings; whether formal industries or informal economies. These are complex food ecosystems; entangled and emergent.
Individuals, communities, businesses, and nations have responded to food trends in diverse ways. Fairness seems to be the dominant narrative of our times; treating animals with kindness, food labourers with dignity, and respecting the food itself. With the rise and fall of poverty and affluence, how do we ensure accessibility and affordability of food across time and space? What would be the economic impact of a food chain break down?
Fourth, power. Perpetual globalisation is met with countering trends of localism and individualisation. Regardless of who we are, we all seek some form of control when it comes to our food; self-sufficiency in sustaining our food intake, long-term and reliable food security, and self-sovereignty over our food-related decisions. How do we counterbalance uneven power distributions over the regulation of food? Wherein do we find justice for the starving and the marginalised? Do we go off-grid and ensure our own survival, or do we trust in and rely on those in power to protect our food chains? What would be the political impact of a food chain break down?
Finally, processes. Not only do our food chains face fragmentation, so too do our supply chains. Industrialisation has driven our need for speed and scale. The rate at which technology is advancing will surely revolutionise our food experiences several times over. We have innovated in ways that would be near impossible to fathom only a few decades ago. How does one begin to explain renewable energy in farming, 3D printed food in restaurants, futuristic kitchens blurring the lines between human and technology, or even the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle? What would be the technological impact of a food chain break down?
One can imagine that at the initial point of impact – or rather our first realisation that the food chain has broken down – would be met with attempts to prevent further deterioration within, in relation to, and outside of the food chain. Essential food services would be of top priority, followed by the improvement of supporting services. As the dust settles and we find our footing again in the aftermath of a post-normal world, we would then reflect on what was, observe what is, and imagine what could be.
However, there is no need to wait for such an occurrence to happen. We can get ahead of the curve by looking for wild fluctuations in the behaviour and interactions of our food system’s variables. We can draw inspiration from similar wildcards. After all, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, it is said. What sustains a food chain and what causes it to break down? We have much to gain from change – more to lose if things stay the same, but even more to learn along the way.
© Marguerite Coetzee 2021