A Resilient Food System for Modern Hunter-Gatherers

A Resilient Food System for Modern Hunter-Gatherers
In New York City, a hotspot of the COVID-9 pandemic, supermarket shelves are picked over or empty, and food delivery schedules are full. Some restaurants still deliver or offer take-out. Many don’t, and we worry about their future. 

We have become modern hunter-gatherers, working harder than ever to find our next meal. We share information about where to order produce, cheese, meat, fish, and baked goods. Some wonderful small businesses are working 24/7 to meet their new, super-sized demand; and, with any luck, half of their new customers will stick when we stabilize into our new normal. That would be a silver lining.

If you’re prone to worry, current stories about our food supply will get your attention. Farmers who sell into the restaurant supply chain are plowing under their crops because the restaurants are closed. Never mind that the people who would have eaten that produce still need to eat; that’s a different supply chain. Dairy farmers are pouring milk down the drain. Meatpacking plants are shutting down across the Midwest – their workers are sick – and over 1,000 Wendy’s locations have no burgers.

At the same time, we see food pantry lines growing longer every day. Food waste and hungry people. We try – unsuccessfully – to connect those dots. Even in normal times, about 30% to 40% of food is wasted all along the supply chain from farmer to transportation to retail to consumer. How much more is being wasted today?

When Smithfield Foods shut down a plant in April that provided 5% of America’s pork, the story got a lot of attention, even though 5% might not sound like that much. But we at Invest NYC SDG, based at the Center for Sustainable Business at NYU’s Stern School of Business, know that the last 5% of supply can have a disproportionately large impact on the price consumers pay. (That’s not a prediction about the prices we’ll be paying in a few weeks, just a worry.) On top of the strained family finances of America’s 30 million (at least) unemployed, plus those who were struggling before the pandemic, any price increases will be very painful. After closing down 5% of America’s pork supply, Smithfield closed at least two more plants in April due to workers’ health concerns. Companies across the meat industry did the same. Smithfield then announced that more than 550 family farms supply just one of those plants and, as Smithfield’s CEO put it, “These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals." 

How did our food supply become so fragile? One answer is the perpetual quest for efficiency. Large companies like Smithfield have consolidated small, regional plants into super-sized behemoths to capture economies of scale. Just 50 slaughterhouses produce 98% of America’s meat. They’ve streamlined their distribution systems, too, eliminating redundancies to minimize costs. This strategy has enabled large meat suppliers to run profitably while keeping supermarket meat inexpensive. Unfortunately, this efficient system has little back-up capacity – in other words, no resiliency in a crisis.

Perhaps because we recognize that we’re not really hunter-gatherers, we’re thinking about what it would take to put down roots and grow our own food in New York City. At Invest NYC SDG, we are studying indoor vertical farms in renovated industrial buildings, as well as rooftop and community farms. We’re studying the oyster and kelp farms that Greenwave would like to establish all around Long Island to supply our city’s great fish and produce markets. And we’re studying indoor fish farming.

We’re impressed with a company called Superior Fresh, which operates a large aquaponics farm in Wisconsin. In aquaponics, fish and vegetables are grown in a symbiotic system where the fish waste fertilizes the vegetables, and the vegetables purify the water, which is then recirculated to the fish. Aquaponics can be done anywhere. New York City’s Food and Finance High School has had an aquaponics system that’s been growing tilapia and lettuce since 2007. Superior Fresh grows best-aquaculture-certified salmon and certified organic salad greens year-round (think about Wisconsin winters), and consumers can have their produce on their tables just 48 hours after harvest.

What could a food-resilient New York City look like in 2030 or 2050? We probably won’t be raising our own pork, but salmon? Quite possibly. Veggies? Of course. If we could produce 5% of what we eat right here in NYC, would that make our city “resilient”? How much would that last 5% change our daily hunter-gatherer reality right now? Would it help feed over one million New Yorkers who were already food insecure? And what would it cost? Compared with the scale economies of industrial-size meat and vegetable producers, it will probably cost more per meal. But what price are we willing to pay for just-harvested fresh salmon and salad? For resilience in a crisis?

At Invest NYC SDG, we’re also thinking about the green workforce of the future.  Will New York City have a small but essential category of workers called “farmers”? Don’t bet against it.

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