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May-June 2009 Vol. 43, No. 3


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  Special Report: Wild Cards in Our Future

The Disappearance of Food: The Next Global Wild Card?

A food crisis might make the mortgage crisis seem mild by comparison.

By John Rockefeller

The term “food security” is still an abstraction for many of us living in modern market economies. In these countries, consumers’ food costs have been driven down by efficient, centralized production and distribution. An ever smaller group of producers and distributors consolidates our nourishment into market shares, and our food must travel great distances to reach our tables.

Driving costs down and profits up is well and good, but not when we fail to attend to the safety or sustainability of local supplies. We need to consider the consequences of an interruption in the global food supply chain. Since our sources of food are primarily a shrinking number of centralized and distant corporations, rather than numerous and widely distributed suppliers, our food-supply system is inherently fragile. A single failure would engender a large market interruption. Add political and financial uncertainty into this mix, and the risk increases exponentially.

How are we to mitigate the devastating potential effects of this wild-card scenario? Are all countries holding emergency food stores, so that they could respond quickly and restore order to food supplies? Not by my calculations. What do we actually know about contingency plans for a possible food system collapse within our own countries? If plans exist for a system collapse, what are they, and (perhaps more importantly) who is managing them?

A single failure in our food production and distribution chains could eliminate a large percentage of our available foods, while driving costs up on the remaining food source options. In this situation, the attraction of reduced consumers’ costs in the short run has set up as much of a risk as did subprime mortgages. Unlike losing a home, however, where we have alternative supplies locally (renting a temporary apartment, staying with friends or family), losing a singular, centralized food supply with no alternative sources available locally would mean widespread hunger and hardship. Therefore, I see an urgent need to bolster local food sources.

As we learned from the economic collapse of 2008, risk management was a game being played with a stacked deck by profit-seeking entities, without regard to economic realities. To avoid a similar outcome in the food sector, we need full and accurate information on the consolidation, vertical integration, and contingency plans for producing and distributing food to consumers in the event of a disruption. This is a global imperative.

The question that must be asked when entrusting survival to a small group of profit-based mechanisms is, What happens if profit disappears? Are there structures and fail-safes in place that will provide safety in times of crisis? What are the contingency plans for supplying food in the event of economic and political crises?

National security is certainly premised as much on a solid food system as on the availability of high-grade tactical weaponry, yet we exert little effective influence on its sustainability or management. Until we truly consider sustainable and secure practices to ensure that our food does not go down the same road as our failed financial sector, we are powerless to ensure its safe arrival at our tables in the years to come.

About the Author

John Rockefeller is CEO of Zero Consult Ltd., a strategy and forecasting group based in Boston and Portland. Previously, he served as former managing director of The International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study (IFIAS) based in Stockholm and Toronto, head of international affairs at The Copenhagen Institute in Denmark, and executive director of the Regional Cancer Foundation of San Francisco.



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How "Wild Cards" May Reshape Our Future
By John L. Petersen


The Disappearance of Food: The Next Global Wild Card?
By John Rockefeller

A Wild Card Sampler
By Brian Pomeroy

Are Market Economies Imploding?
By Marc Blasband

Artificial Intelligence Displaces Service Workers
By Steve Malerich

Sunspots and a Communications Catastrophe
By Dennis Miner