Dirty potatoes and other horror stories
‘There’s no earthly way of knowing the direction we are going.’
said Willy Wonka.
And it wouldn’t surprise me to see that quote on the wall above Boris Johnson’s desk at number 10. Not only is our current direction unclear it is strewn with boulders and inconvenient obstacles that is making this time complex. I imagine that concern across the UK and beyond is growing. Conversations are turning to both fuel and food security and a more nuanced understanding of their symbiotic qualities.
Photo: Jon Tyson
It appears that a lack of foresight and a tendency to ignore anything that isn’t an immediate crisis means the UK finds itself facing some uncomfortable shortages. In no particular order these are some of them specifically affecting food production as I write:
· Gas and resulting spiralling of energy costs
· HGV drivers and skilled labour in general
· Workers to pick crops
· Computer chips
· Metal parts
· Raw materials
Covid upended normal life
On the surface things may now look more or less normal-ish, but beneath the façade lurks a very different narrative. The disruption we experienced has interrupted supplies and it may be some time before our usual service level is resumed. It has to be said that also, we may not get back to where we were.
Whatever is on your usual shopping list from paint to hardware, timber to cars, beer, meat, fizzy drinks and more, you’re a) unlikely to find them and b) when you do, they are going to cost more than you could have ever imagined.
To add to the misery, global shipping prices are dizzyingly high
This has led to genuine uncertainty at every level. The pandemic has been stubbornly resistant to public health measures and international commerce is in a state of turmoil. Lean production policies mean that when there’s a break in supply the ripple effects continue ad infinitum. When one product fails or is in short supply it is impossible to manufacture others. The CO2 shortage is one example. There has been little margin for error within lean production It looked like a triumph when things worked but interconnected supply chains have seen a few broken links. Now we are all feeling the effect as we go about our daily lives.
Photo: Marko Blažević
A supply chain software management company CEO said recently that no end was in sight and that we should all assume disruptions on this scale are going to continue for quite some time. This really is the new normal and its true effects have still not been felt yet.
If there was ever a time to consider fuel and food security this surely looks like it
When shortages hit during the Second World War, we upped our efforts at becoming more self-sufficient. That has been happening and it has been pleasing to see how the UK has upped its production of salad crops. We have developed precision horticulture tools. Growers have manipulated growth rates at the plant scale, and this has reduced in-field leafy salad and vegetable crop variability. As a consequence, production efficiency has increased with a subsequent marked reduction in waste. But and this is a significant but, UK cucumber producers have said that spiralling gas prices mean they will cut production early and start next season much later. Therefore, the UK will once again rely on imports to make up the shortfall. Great, if there were any spare HGV drivers, fantastic if we had enough CO2 to preserve our food and how long before diesel prices and staff shortages generally means this type of business becomes prohibitive?
Sadly, growing our own may not be the panacea we might crave
Our supply chain and how we expect our food to be presented is more complex and demanding. Companies that produce machines to seal packaged goods cannot get parts. Delivery times used to run to around 4-6 weeks, they now take 6 months+. Relying on computer chips some food related businesses are now suffering the impact of car manufacturers’ demand and hence experiencing frustratingly long delays.
Photo: Devi Puspita Amartha Yahya
Bring back dirty veg!
Those who are old enough to remember greengrocers, dirty vegetables, things being sold loose and fizzy pop being an occasional treat may see their past return to haunt them. It’s interesting to note that car production takes the microchips needed for food production at a time when vehicle emissions are still contributing considerably to the climate emergency. I guess the conclusion I am drawing is that now it’s time to reset our expectations. If you are a conspiracy theorist, you might have an opinion but that is another article entirely.
What all this disruption demonstrates is that our demand is too high
Also, our expectations have become unsustainable and for the sake of the planet now is the time to rein ourselves in. Stuff GDP, stuff progress, stuff continual growth, after all, you’ll be less likely to stuff a chicken, that’s for certain. Would that be a bad thing? In one sense no, there was a time chicken was a luxury and now it’s consumed with an air of disdain. This has to stop, surely?
Roald Dahl was right, there really is no earthly way of knowing the direction we are going.
If this all sounds rather depressing please tune into next week's article where we look at the growth and ingenuity of bio tech and plant based startups. If you are interested in receiving our brand new plant based investment ebook do connect.