Let’s Talk about Food — and What Happens In a Crisis

A Tesco supermarket after storm Emma hit Ireland in March 2018. Suppliers were unable to deliver food for days.

D. Ribeiro

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A Tesco supermarket after storm Emma hit Ireland in March 2018. Suppliers were unable to deliver food for days.

Sweden is telling its citizens to be ready to feed themselves for a week. Other nations should follow suit.

This week, Sweden presented a civil-defense brochure to be sent to the nation’s 4.8 million households. Called “If the Crisis or War Comes,” the 20-page brochure provides practical instructions, ranging from the signals that will sound in case of a national emergency, how to detect disinformation, how to get on without access to heating, fuel, the internet, medications, or public transport. It also explains to Swedes how to plan for food disruptions, and issues this sobering directive: every able-bodied resident will be expected to fend for him- or herself for seven days.

Stockholm is blazing a trail that other governments should follow. To an extent that we don’t sufficiently discuss, the developed world is extremely dependent on long food supply chains that are vulnerable to disruptions. So let’s talk about food.

The U.S. imports a staggering 95 percent of coffee, cocoa, fish, and shellfish. Half of all fresh fruit and fruit juices consumed in the U.S. are likewise imported. Food import rates are similar around the developed world; the UK, for example, imports 50 percent of its food. “Our food is transported via increasingly long and complex supply chains that often involve ships; at any given time there are some 100,000 ships at sea transporting food and other commodities,” notes British geographer Sir Nigel Thrift, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick. “Most of the ships pass through a small number of choke points, which are very easy to attack.” Disruptions would quickly leave many of U.S. hungry.

Cutting off international and national food supply chains is, in fact, the easiest way to bring us to our knees. Our adversaries might seek to interdict naval choke points such as the straits of Gibraltar and Hormuz, disrupt the delivery hubs that feed major cities, or hack supermarkets’ logistics networks. The British grocery giant Tesco, for example, tracks its products using no less than 100 million data points. That’s challenging enough, but today most retailers operate on a just-in-time system that reduces stocks but requires constant deliveries. That makes the U.S. even more vulnerable: in case of an emergency, the apples from Chile, beef from Brazil, and milk from Austria won’t arrive in time, or at all. This spring, KFC suffered a humiliating mishap in the UK, when its supplier failed to deliver chicken. While bird-loving Britons were able to find nourishment elsewhere, the episode hints at the possibilities for disruption across the food supply chain.

So what happens in case of a crisis? According to a February report from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, a country like Sweden would unable to switch to more home-grown food. It’s too dependent on imports of fuel and fertilizer.

During the Cold War, governments maintained impressive strategic food reserves. Among other necessities, the Swedish government stored some 6,000 tons of coffee. Today it no longer maintains food supplies for the general population, and as noted, retailers have only small reserves.

The threats to global food supplies are not news. Lloyd’s Insurance noted in a 2013 report that the Gulf Cooperation Council had begun investing in strategic food reserves for fear of terrorist attempts to contaminate food supplies. In Europe and North America, there has so far been less reason to worry about our daily bread. But with adversaries using an ever-wider range of methods against U.S.– a 2018 U.S. Senate investigation reports that between 1992 and 2006, Russia engineered 55 energy cut-offs — we urgently need to talk about food. As Sir Nigel points out, “people talk about the consequences of the internet being attacked, but we can live without the internet. We can’t live without food.”

Sweden is taking the lead, and not just through its Crisis-or-War brochure. In December, the country’s all-parliamentary Defense Commission laid out steps for building up the country’s total defense, including its food security. “Sweden imports 50 percent of its food products, but we also eat too much,” says Tommy Åkesson, the commission’s permanent secretary. “In a crisis situation, we need to talk about calories. We can eat less than we do today, but that has to be communicated to people without causing fear.” Adds General Sir Richard Barrons, the former commander of Britain’s Joint Forces Command: “Just-in-time seriously harms resilience. Either the government needs to hold stocks, or it needs to pay supermarkets to do so, or it has to oblige citizens to stock food at home.”

Indeed, in its December report, the Swedish Defense Commission also recommends that the government rebuild its strategic food reserves, aiming to provide for a three-month disruption. The commission also recommends that citizens be taught to keep supplies of their own. San Francisco has for years been operating a similar model, informing its residents about how to survive for three days in case of an earthquake.

And even if no adversary ever strikes, we should plan for food disruptions caused, for example, by a pandemic. “Military action is just one issue,” says Sir Nigel. “Supply chains could suddenly be halted by food or plant disease.” Or by Mother Nature, who is becoming an increasingly fierce adversary. As residents of the Swedish city of Gävle discovered during a crippling snowstorm several years ago, milk supplies quickly dried up – and soon there were hardly any other staples left on the shelves either.

There are several straightforward ways in which we could lessen the blow of a food crisis. The Swedish brochure advises citizens to store robust staples such as potatoes, eggs, pasta, canned beans and meat, coffee, and non-perishable fruit juices. We should also waste less food; one-third of today’s production goes to waste. Lloyd’s suggests extending the shelf life of foodstuffs. Camilla Eriksson, the researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences who investigated a potential switch to national food production, suggests that increasing the use of biodiesel and organic fertilizer would reduce our vulnerability to disruptions of imports – and would benefit the environment as well. Buying more locally grown food would also help.

Locally sourced groceries and organic fertilizer do, of course, mean higher prices for consumers – but the growing localism movement could thus also increase national resilience. Indeed, food is a rare area where the objectives of environmental activists and defense planners converge.

But rather worryingly, there’s no audit of where, exactly, our food comes from. Mapping our national and international supply chains would help U.S. to at least identify our vulnerabilities. The residents of Gävle discovered that living 100 or even 50 miles from a farm or supermarket is of no use if the roads are blocked. And as San Franciscans know, planning for an emergency brings reassurance rather than panic. We really need to talk about food.

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