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The Perils of a ‘Just Enough, Just in Time’ Food System

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

by Evan Fraser for The Conversation

Toilet paper shortages , profiteering from hand sanitizer and empty shelves in grocery stores.

Thanks to COVID-19, governments in most industrialized nations are preparing for shortages of life’s necessities. If they fail, riots over food may be inevitable. Some wonder if we are responding appropriately to COVID-19, and it’s clear that recent events expose a fundamental flaw in the global systems that bring us our daily bread.

We live in a wondrous age when global supply chains seamlessly link farmers and consumers using the principles of “ just enough, just in time .” For years, companies have worked hard to keep inventories low, timing shipments to balance supply and demand using knife-edge accuracy.

In many ways, this system is a miracle. Low-cost food is one outcome. And if there’s a problem in one part of the supply chain, the global system is good at finding alternatives. (Mangoes from Asia gone bad? Try the mangoes from Central America!)

But with this abundance — and convenience — comes a hidden cost that COVID-19 has exposed: a loss of resilience. Our global food system depends on the tendrils of international trade to wrap the world in an ever more complex system of buyers, sellers, processors and retailers, all of whom are motivated to keep costs low and operations lean.

Building resilience

So when the supply chain system itself is thrown into question — as it is now thanks to COVID-19 — then the wheels threaten to come off the proverbial apple cart. COVID-19 shows that we need to wake up and realize that if we really want to be resilient, we need to build in more redundancies, buffers and firewalls into the systems we depend on for life.

In practical terms, this means we should be keeping larger inventories and promoting a greater degree of regional self-sufficiency.

These measures will help ensure that our communities don’t panic if the food trucks stop.

A truck is loaded with containers full of apples ready to be shipped to the market. (Shutterstock)

But while this may sound sensible, high inventories and more regional self-sufficiency are, in fact, antithetical to the “just enough, just in time” approach that drives most of our economy, even though no one’s suggesting we need to be completely self-sufficient of the time.

Take the systems that produce and distribute the corn, wheat and rice that fuel most of humanity’s calories. The latest United Nations report on the global grain system contains some bad news. Last year, the world ate more grains than it produced within the year, and our carry-over stocks (defined as the amount of food we have, globally, at the end of the year to see us through to the next harvest) are declining.

The good news is that this decline comes after a run of good years where farmers delivered one monumental harvest after another. So our carry-over stocks started last year in pretty good shape and this means we’ve currently got about four months of food stored. But there’s a downward trend regarding those stockpiles, and this is worrisome.

Climate change poses challenges

But what if Mother Nature doesn’t play nice with us this year?

Climate change, after all, is making food harder to produce. What if we face a major drought in Europe and Asia like we did in 2010 to 2011? Or another big Midwestern drought similar to the situation in 2012 and 2013? And what if COVID-19 doesn’t go away by summer?

If any of these things happen, we may not have the buffers to protect ourselves. And it won’t be toilet paper and hand sanitizer we need to worry about. It might be wheat, rice and corn.

Wheat is harvested in a Kansas field in June 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Charlie Riedel

Today, conventional wisdom is that the average city in North America has a three-day supply of fresh food (dried, canned and other preserved food supplies will last a bit longer). This, according to some, means that we are all only ever “nine meals from anarchy.” Luckily, North American grocery stores have sophisticated supply chains so no one is seriously suggesting that the panicked purchasing of the last few days that has emptied shelves will persist. Nevertheless, the systems we depend upon are, in many ways, fragile and inherently vulnerable.

In all likelihood, COVID-19 will pass and most of us will only suffer economic setbacks from lost wages and disruptions linked with cancelled classes, travel and meetings. But in the aftermath, it’s important to ask whether we — as a society — will treat this as a moment to learn a bit about the fragility of the modern world.

Will we work collectively to put resilience alongside efficiency as a primary driver for the systems we depend upon each and every day to feed ourselves?


Evan Fraser is a Professor, Director of the Arrell Food Institute and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

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Consumer News

LA Alcohol Delivery Sees Massive Spike Following “Safer at Home” Order

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Photo by Waldemar Brandt

LOS ANGELES — Following California Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” order, Saucey has experienced an unprecedented number of users on their alcohol delivery platform.

The company has seen a 300% increase in area sales compared to a standard delivery day.

“As the concern over the COVID-19 virus has grown at both the state and public levels, I think you’re not so coincidentally seeing a rise in people ordering alcohol,” says Saucey co-founder and CEO Chris Vaughn. “We’re feeling the effects elsewhere too, like San Francisco and Chicago; we’re doing our best to assist everyone who wants to use us and use us safely.”

The Los Angeles-based app recognizes they are among select delivery services fortunate enough to be helping people in a variety of markets as they practice social distancing and protect themselves from the rapidly spreading Coronavirus.

“It’s good to see so many people making lifestyle adjustments that let them be as comfortable as they can be during this time,” Vaughn said.

There may be something to that comfort thing. Since March 15, Saucey has seen ice cream sales spike by 500% and soft drinks by 150%. Lime sales also spiked by 350%, potentially pointing to more people making mixed drinks.

As for the alcohol, vodka tops Saucey’s spirit sales and is up by 250%. Whiskey, however, saw the greatest spike at 300%. IPAs held the highest increase in sales in their beer category at 300%.

Saucey will continue providing safe deliveries to the people of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Silicon Valley, Orange County and San Jose.

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Business

Costco Says Don’t Even Think of Returning Toilet Paper

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(TMZ) — Costco is unsympathetic to all the folks who stocked up on toilet paper like they were never gonna get another sheet … because the superstore has made it clear — NO REFUNDS!!!

This sign was plastered on the wall of the Costco in Pentagon City outside Washington, D.C. Now that people have settled in, it seems they’re realizing they have waaaaaay too much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wipes and Lysol, and apparently some are trying to return it for cash.

You gotta be a little sympathetic … lots of people got laid off after they hoarded these items, so money is a huge issue.

Also on the no-return list — Water and rice.

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Consumer News

Drives Aim to Keep Historic Restaurants Alive During Outbreak

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Owner Dimitri Komarov at the famous Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

LOS ANGELES (Daily News) — With restaurants limited to takeout service or shut down completely by the coronavirus outbreak, a drive has been launched to keep some of Los Angeles’ legendary eateries from fading away.

Known as 1933 Group, the team operates about a dozen themed bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, including the barrel-shaped bar Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Harlowe in West Hollywood, Highland Park Bowl and the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

Many of them have shuttered in recent days amid strict orders implemented by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti, aiming to stem the flow of deadly COVID-19.

“We are struggling to survive,” said Dimitri Komarov, the venues’ co-owner. “The impact is dire. We’re losing our […]

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