My wife Becky and I had an interesting conversation over breakfast this morning, as you do sometimes at that time of the day.
It started with me sharing a story I heard from Richard Young, a Worcestershire farmer who now works with the Sustainable Food Trust. It was about his refrigeration engineer, who’s a person, like many of us, who isn’t part of the Transition Movement, hasn’t read Collapse by Jared Diamond or The Long Emergency by James Kunstler, and is simply getting on with his life. When he isn’t fixing other people’s cooler units, apparently this chap is using all his income to buy silver or stockpile dried vegetable powders and other long life foods in anticipation of a complete societal breakdown.
He is firmly convinced that in the not too distant future there will be an economic meltdown, caused by what is known as ‘contagion’, a pack of cards syndrome where the economy of one country after another enters a progressive paralysis as the contagion spreads. As a consequence, he believes, when economic systems cease to function the only commodities that will have any value, will be precious metals, consumer durables and food.
The story has been preoccupying me ever since I heard it from Richard. I do think sometimes that certain individuals have a kind of sixth sense. They anticipate future events in advance of the common majority. Richard’s refrigeration engineer seems one, and I can’t help thinking that he might just be right.
You can imagine how the conversation went on. I said “Well we’re OK because we’re making our farm as resilient as possible to future shocks. We’re growing all our own animal feed, generating our own energy, making cheese from our milk.”
Becky responded, “You know perfectly well that won’t matter if we get serious social collapse and unrest, leading to mass migration, anarchy and a breakdown of civil society.”
Ever hopeful, I said, “Well maybe it won’t be quite so bad as that. There are already some examples of this kind of thing happening where it hasn’t led to a complete collapse. Zimbabwe and Cuba have both coped relatively well with economic collapse and the resulting scarcity of key commodities including food.”
I know about the Zimbabwean example because I was recently in Harare. My friend John Wilson and his wife live in a leafy suburb of the city with a large garden. They went right through the high inflation period when all the news reports conveyed the impression that there was a virtual breakdown of law and order.
I asked them how it was to actually live there at that time. They said it was extremely tough. There was almost nothing in the shops, including food. Money didn’t work due to eye watering levels of inflation. There were frequent interruptions to their electricity and water supplies (which continue today).
But the point was that people did cope. They just hunkered down, grew food in their gardens, got used to not buying anything and bartered instead. They sat it out until things started to stabilise and the dollar economy regained value. What did surprise me, however, was to hear that although they didn’t starve, people lost weight largely because, though they had plenty of vegetables, fats were simply unavailable.
We mused about how London would cope with such an emergency and the vast numbers of people who would be affected by a paralysis of our current centralised and globalised food distribution systems. Becky argued that it could be much worse here because of our total dependency on umbilical supplies of food. As a result the capacity for resilience would be much reduced. I felt that while that may be the case, we are a very civilised country with a long history of law and order and surely a descent into anarchy doesn’t fit our ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude. Hopeful, perhaps?
I suspect for most people, with the notable exception of the Worcestershire refrigeration engineer and others like him, the idea that our food systems are anywhere near as fragile as this would probably be rejected out of hand.
At present few of us have any real understanding of how our food systems work – even with the shock of its realities brought home by the recent horsemeat scandal. We are stuck with food systems based on industrial production and there is little understanding of their vulnerability or of the damage that these systems are inflicting on climate change, environmental pollution and public health.
The real cost of food production is disguised in bad practice and ‘cheap’ food continues to prevail. The obvious value of buying your food fresh (it doesn’t travel), local (your money stays in the county and the country) and organic (supporting sustainable production that works with nature) is lost.
Informed public opinion will always be the most crucial driver of change. We need to increase public understanding of our current industrial food systems. We must talk to our friends. We must talk to our neighbours. We must talk to our politicians. With enough public demand, change will happen.
We shall see…
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