Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Locavores and Vulnerability

I mentioned the storm which hit the Mid-Atlantic states had gone through Reston.  The local Safeway got its power back yesterday, but its stock of perishable food, particularly frozen food, is still being rebuilt.  I think it reflects the extent to which the food chain has adopted the "just-in-time" logic of Japanese car makers from the 1980's, which was a hot meme in the 1990's. 

The discussion in the Post of the impact of the storm included observations from local vendors of high-end meat, including one perhaps apocryphal statement that his butcher had 80 head of cattle which he had to dispose of.  At first it sounded unlikely to me, but thinking about the practicalities makes it more likely.  Consider an operation where a butcher/meat packer buys cattle.  He's set up to move the cattle from the feed lot/ranch to his slaughterhouse where they'll be killed and cut into products he can ship out to his stores.  He knows how much meat his stores can take; he knows how long his refrigerated trucks will take to get the products to the store; he knows how long it will take to slaughter and butcher the animals. 

Simple economics means he should speed the animals through as fast as possible; that's good for the bottomline, reduces the amount of capital needed, and incidentally probably serves the animals well. So what happens when the storm comes through and the stores call up and say, no deliveries until we notify you we've got power back?  He's probably got no storage, no way to hold inventory.  He maybe could load up his trucks and keep their refrigeration units running, but that won't hold much surplus. If he's got 80 head of cattle in the lot, he's not set up to feed and care for the animals, certainly not humanely.

There's a Chaplin or Lucille Ball short where one end of an assembly line stops and the rest keeps going--that's what can happen here.

The point of my reflections is this: though I often question the advocates of the food movement, they've got one thing right:  our modern integrated food production and distribution system is efficient, but it's vulnerable.  Simply because of its integration, a disruption wreaks more damage than with the locavore system. 

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