Lincoln Journal Star: Local View: What if Nebraskans ran out of food?



With our grocery carts bulging and our meal portions super-sized, we don’t think about this much — but what if we were to run out of food?

What if our grocery stores and restaurants — that rarely stock more than three days’ worth of inventory — couldn’t refill the shelves or serve us because the delivery trucks hadn’t come?

What if our global food system — that, on average, ships every bite we eat over 2,000 miles to our mouths — broke down and we faced a food crisis? Shortages? Sky-high prices?

What would we do?

And remember, every minute counts, as it may have been hours since we last ate. Our stomachs are growling. Hunger is affecting our blood sugar. And we need to eat something. Soon.

But what if there’s no food? Nothing in the fridge, at the store, at the drive-thru.

What would we do?

Oh, you say, that’s not a problem. We live in Nebraska, the “breadbasket of the world.”

This is indeed prime agricultural ground we’re living on. Some of the best on earth.

Most of what we grow here, though, isn’t food we can put in our mouths. It’s feed for animals. Field corn and soybeans. Not something we as humans ever directly eat.

But not only are we not growing edible staples (wheat for bread, corn for tortillas), virtually all of the vegetables and fruits we regularly consume —lettuce, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, apples— are shipped in from out of state. One out of every five bites we stick in our mouths comes from outside the country.

And what if this global transportation network were to break down? What if the ships and trucks didn’t arrive?

Last July, the Washington Post published an article entitled “How the climate crisis could become a food crisis overnight.” It turns out that the global trade network moving the staple crops the world most uses for food (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, etc.) is dependent on 14 “chokepoint” junctures, such as the Panama Canal and the Turkish Straits.

“Disruption at any of these chokepoints,” the article stated, “would mean trouble, but if several jammed at once, it could be disastrous.” Thirteen of the 14 choke points have seen some sort of disruption or closure in the past 15 years.

And what if a natural disaster were to strike?

We all recall what chaos ensued when the delivery trucks were unable to get into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and we are still seeing distribution problems in Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria.

But environmental calamities also pose risks to production agriculture. The failure of the Russian wheat harvest in 2010 — and ensuing export embargo — has been widely credited with being the spark that ignited the “Arab Spring” revolutions.

In our now-globally interconnected food production and distribution system, what impacts one major food-producing nation can ripple across the globe. And it needn’t just be a natural disaster. Political upheaval in a country — or a trade war — can also disrupt the international supply chain.

Depending exclusively on this global system to feed us seems pretty risky—particularly when our next meal could be at stake. It’s an argument, actually, for “localizing” our food system where economically feasible.

For example, there’s no reason to be relying on the drought-plagued California Central Valley to produce all our lettuce when a fresher (and therefore more nutritious) product can be grown right here year-round. The same goes for virtually all the vegetables and fruits listed above — not to mention all the seasonally available crops like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and pears.

For sure, whatever we grow here could also be wiped out by drought, pests and disease. But growing some of our own food — and keeping those food dollars in the state — doubles our chances when it comes to always getting dinner.

And with a bushel of corn barely at the cost of production, promoting a specialty crops industry that could feed Nebraskans should be the next big policy idea for our state — from the university to the Capitol to our chambers of commerce.

Tim Rinne is a member of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Food Policy Council and a co-founder of the Hawley Hamlet neighborhood garden.