By now you have all seen it in your local grocery stores. The shortages of canned, frozen, and bulk food stuff just flying off the shelves because people are afraid that they won't have enough.
Well I got good news and I got bad news….
The good news is we are not going to run out of food at least not in the way you might be thinking.
The bad news is we might run short of the food that makes life so much more flavorful and nutritious.
To really explain this I am going to have to do a somewhat deep dive into how food is grown in modern agriculture and how food is harvested, shipped, stored and sold. To do this I am going to focus on 3 different common foods that all of us eat and that we have available to us pretty much year round in the developed world.
Apples are so ubiquitous and abundant in the modern world that we forget that they are actually a very seasonal crop that produces only once a year for a few weeks to a month depending on the variety of apple. Apples of course are grown on trees in large apple orchards all across the world. Like wheat, some form of apples have been with us for thousands of years. The wild ancestor still grows in the Middle East where all the apples we know today come from a single source.
Apples are typically harvested depending on variety and location from June to November in the Northern Hemisphere. Now if you have enough varieties that are hardy to your location you could conceivably get a 6 month harvest from apple trees. But having that many varieties suitable for one location is incredibly rare you will more typically see a 2-3 month spread on your apple harvest season.
Now you might be thinking in this modern age that apples are like wheat or corn and that they can be harvested mechanically with big machines and few people.
No way Jose…..
Every apple you have ever eaten was most likely harvested by hand and if you live in America there is a good chance it was harvested by a fellow name Jose. This is still done by hand because there is no good way yet to harvest apples mechanically without damaging them too much to sell.
In America that means we are dependent on migrant farm workers moving from place to place picking apples as they ripen and sending them off to storage. Well in a normal time the only things we would have to worry about would be the human rights abuses and terrible working/living conditions that a lot of these migrant farm workers endure. In the time of a pandemic that spreads rapidly among people in tight living conditions and when we are supposed to stay put these farm workers live in crowded bunkhouses and have to travel across the country to get to the next harvest sites. This means of course that the people picking our food are highly susceptible to the disease, highly mobile and they have little to no access to the healthcare system.
If too many farm workers get sick or we don’t let enough of them in because of border closures we won’t have foods like apples, pears, or strawberries in our stores at all because they are ones doing all the picking. That could radically change the way our groceries stories look in the months to come.
Whole Head Lettuce
Lettuce or any other leafy green is a whole other beast in of itself. Like apples it must be picked by hand but unlike apples there is a continuous harvest going on in the various lettuce growing regions of the state. It's not a one and done season like apples and since leafy greens do not last long once they are harvested they must be shipped and sold immediately after getting washed and packed in the field. The farm workers that harvest lettuce not only live in close quarters but they also work in close quarters which means they will never get a break from being exposed.
The way lettuce is grown, harvested and shipped makes its workers and the product itself very susceptible to failure which makes lettuce and other leafy greens one of the first things to disappear when food system issues crop up.
The Moral of the Story
The current crisis we are going through has in a strange/terrible way done us a favor by pulling the wool from our eyes. We have grown accustomed as a society to a food system that is efficient, cheap, plentiful and unfailing reliable. Now with this crisis hitting us we are seeing that that system is also fragile and in some ways not very resilient. That being said we are most likely not going to have a lack of food in any real way at least when it comes to the food existing. What could happen is that the food we have won't be evenly distributed like it is today. The Great Plains could end up with a glut of grains and livestock because it can't be slaughtered or shipped. The Imperial Valley in California could have all the cantaloupe in the world that is rotting in the field for lack of hands to harvest it.
Another scenario we have to consider could be rising food prices that pushes certains types of food out of the reach of the average person. Maybe food is getting picked but not at the rate or quantities that enable us to have food at the price we are used to.
Our food system is fragile and it seems like most of us are just now seeing it for what it truly is and not what we thought it was. But maybe now that people have seen our food system for what it is, maybe they will push to make it more resilient and more local. At the very least people are now paying more attention to food and the system that makes sure we gets it.
Hello my name is Josh Larson and I am the creator of the Green Living Library. Here on the blog you will find updates to content found in the Green Living Library as well as stories from those living the sustainable life already.