As we casually wander the aisle of our local supermarket, few of us give much thought to what is precisely involved in the creation of the bounty we see before us. Most of us would never have been to a food manufacturing facility or a meat abattoir. Maybe we went to a hobby farm once, but it probably wasn’t a commercial farm. Few are allowed into commercial food manufacturing facilities for various reasons.
Our general ignorance around the food we eat stems from the fact we play little, if any part, in its creation. Our need for consumer convenience primarily drives this disconnection. Our stressed and over-worked lifestyles dictate the need for twenty-four-seven convenience. We seem willing to be excluded from what has been historically a vital part of the human experience and the knowledge that came from it.
In the US, studies show that 16 million people think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, and 40% of primary school-aged children didn’t know that hamburgers also came from cows. This lack of knowledge or understanding of industrialised food production has consequently kept us all in the dark about its many issues. If we had greater public knowledge about what is precisely involved with large scale food production, would we make different choices about how we produce and consume food?
Though our reliance on the industrial food production system is ubiquitous, many of us still fantasise about having our own home garden. Those who do grow something at home will extol its virtues of being healthier and tasting better to anyone within earshot. Some of us are organic farmer market stalwarts and see this as a happy medium between homegrown produce and convenience. Though most of us are happy to charge through a brightly lit supermarket aisle, flinging discounted specials and 2 for 1 buys into our gleaming trolleys.
The Covid-19 pandemic was, for many of us, the first time we experienced empty supermarket shelves. What was initially a profound shock quickly turned into a quest to horde as much of the food that was still available away in our homes. As news reports now tell us, the pandemic crisis is slowly coming to an end, and most of us believe that the worst is now over.
Or is it?
The supply shock that supermarkets felt during the lockdowns has now created even further issues. As production supply dwarfed demand in many food production areas during lockdowns, many companies were forced to destroy food stock that had perishable dates on them. Farmers ploughed vegetables back into the ground after months of work, and unsaleable livestock was killed off worldwide. These actions have now created huge holes in what was once the slick operation of the ‘Just -In-Time’ supply chain model.
In April last year, the UN World Food Program stated that the world faced a ‘biblical famine’ and a ‘global human catastrophe.’ The Covid-19 pandemic only further added to a perilous situation. In 2019/20, locust swarms, swine flu outbreaks, droughts, and floods worldwide have put global food supply chains on a knife-edge. We can see the reality of this in the 77% increase in prices on the Agricultural commodities index, as shown in a recent Bloomberg article.
One of the most significant issues with our global food production system is the inequity in its distribution. If we face profound food shortages, it is developing and poorer countries that will feel the brunt of the collapse. The World Food Program reported that 30 million people are now ‘one step away from starvation’ and in need of urgent global government intervention.
In wealthier countries, like here in Australia, the impact will be felt with rising food prices and more limited choices. While Australians spend a relatively small part of their household income on food and groceries than many other nations, any increase in food prices will still present a significant challenge for low and middle-income earners.
The food we place on the table (or our laps?) every night for dinner is a luxury that we take far too much for granted. Our reliance on the current industrialised food system puts our food security in a house made from a deck of cards. Should any one of at least a dozen possible breakpoints falter or similar events to the pandemic happen again, we could quickly and easily face a far bleaker food future.
It is only in those moments when we will truly understand that our food is our responsibility.
That responsibility extends further than just being able to provide for ourselves and our families. It also makes us responsible for the by-products of the system we now support. Any research into the far-reaching and destructive effects of large scale agriculture will reveal hidden truths. I take a deeper look at more than twenty of these ‘truths’ in the Smart Garden book and their potential costs to us all. The reality is there are many more of these ‘truths’ that we need to become aware of and consider. The collective cost to us health-wise, environmentally, socially and economically are simply unacceptable. They are robbing us of our collective futures, and urgent changes need to be made.
Most of us don’t want to get embroiled in a host of ‘what if’ scenarios. Those that do are labelled conspiracy theorists or nay-sayers. Interestingly, many people who are quick to label others still have home insurance, car insurance and life insurance. That is seen as prudent and responsible! Now some of us may have had a car accident, a couple might have lost a home, but no one reading this has died!? How many of us will have to go hungry before some form of food insurance would be considered responsible. You can’t take out home insurance after the bushfire, and building food security after the next event will prove immensely more difficult than it is today.
Our Smart Garden is currently running at about 50% capacity if that. A few of our kids have left home now, so we no longer need to produce the volume we once did. I was thinking about this the other day and wondered if it was a waste of resources? We have a seed bank on hand, so the garden could quickly and easily be back to 100% production if needed. I see the garden as insurance. Insurance against our family going hungry. Insurance against health-related chronic disease and chemical contamination of our food. It is also insurance against the feeling that we are not doing anything to reduce our families environmental footprint on this precious earth.
It certainly doesn’t make us invulnerable against an uncertain future. Still, there is some peace of mind knowing that we can strike food security off the list of future risks to the family. We have a home, water, food and most importantly, each other. They are the needs I can, want and need to take responsibility for. Outside of the rarefied air of a few wealthy privileged economies, they are the basic needs that occupy most of the global populations day to day thoughts and endeavours. You never need to explain that ‘our food is our responsibility’ to someone from a developing country. It is only viewed as a radical concept to those who have never experienced a food shortage, empty supermarket shelves or hunger.
I believe that in our post-Covid-19 world, the concept of ‘our food- our responsibility’ will become far less radical and much more mainstream.
Only time will tell.