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Visions of a post-supply chain society (commentary)

Port of Long Beach, California in February 2020. Photo: NASA Landsat

Port of Long Beach, California in February 2020. Photo: NASA Landsat

  • For the past several months, Americans have been hearing about, and experiencing firsthand, supply chain disruptions.
  • Nikolas Kozloff, a writer who authored No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, asks whether we need to be thinking about a post-supply chain society.
  • “Now that the pandemic has exposed underlying weaknesses in the system, there will undoubtedly be a reckoning by some,” Kozloff writes. “But perhaps the real question is whether we have wrestled with more severe challenges like climate change, which will disrupt lives to an even greater degree. Indeed, if consumers thought COVID-19 posed a headache for holiday shopping, imagine how rising sea levels, massive increases in temperature, severe wildfires and flooding will place additional stress on orderly supply chains.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Over the course of the holiday season, Americans asked themselves why many of their favorite consumer items became difficult to obtain, from board games to apparel to bicycles. Amid pandemic concerns, labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, clogged ports and shipping backups, some even suggested avoiding the purchase of physical gifts altogether, and buying streaming TV services and spa treatments instead. In a move designed to mollify Americans’ voracious consumerist appetites, president Biden created a “Supply Chain Disruption Taskforce” while working with the port of Los Angeles to expand operating hours and reduce long lines of waiting ships.

Partnering with big business, the White House promised that supply chains would be strengthened. But while the president may succeed in ameliorating bottlenecks in the short-term, perhaps it’s time to figure out how to disentangle ourselves from global supply chains in the first place. As some experts have pointed out, lengthy supply chains are hardly a necessary or even “inevitable” part of the economy. Indeed, such networks were developed by corporate elites to maximize profits by shifting operations abroad, despite many drawbacks and pitfalls which have recently become apparent.

Boondoggle Supply Chains

Now that the pandemic has exposed underlying weaknesses in the system, there will undoubtedly be a reckoning by some. But perhaps the real question is whether we have wrestled with more severe challenges like climate change, which will disrupt lives to an even greater degree. Indeed, if consumers thought COVID-19 posed a headache for holiday shopping, imagine how rising sea levels, massive increases in temperature, severe wildfires and flooding will place additional stress on orderly supply chains. Unfortunately, even though the Biden administration has tinkered around the edges, corporate America shows no sign of restricting supply chains to tackle global warming.

That hasn’t stopped the business press, however, from optimistically touting the possibility of reforming the system in the name of “sustainability.” Take Forbes, for example, which has pushed green manufacturing, integrating net-zero emissions targets into procurement and encouraging the growth of a so-called “circular economy.”  The publication is particularly bullish when it comes to promoting transparency over the supply chain process and blockchain, a digital log which records transactions among multiple parties in a verifiable fashion.

The New York Times, however, remarks that corporate America has not made a dent in reducing carbon emissions linked to global supply chains, which can account for as much as 95 percent of companies’ contributions to greenhouse gasses. Edward Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that maximizing profit while encouraging sustainability are fundamentally irreconcilable. Speaking with the Times, the academic declared that the corporate sector must undertake radical, systemic change by reducing growth if it seeks to have a positive impact on climate.

Port of Long Beach, California in February 2020. Photo: NASA Landsat
Port of Long Beach, California in February 2020. Photo: NASA Landsat

Fragile Agriculture Supply Chains

One of the most environmentally egregious sectors of the global supply chain is agriculture. Indeed, the food system accounts for a whopping 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which represents more than the entire transportation sector combined. As climate change becomes increasingly more severe, agriculture will continue to confront multiple threats ranging from infrastructure damage to loss of capacity to direct harm to livestock and crops, to say nothing of other problems such as soil degradation, human pathogens, food safety, floods, droughts and even malicious cyber-hacking. Disruptions, say experts, are more likely to be on the supply side as opposed to the demand side, with staple foods such as wheat, rice and fish becoming less and less accessible.

Though animal agriculture isn’t specifically mentioned in proposed Green New Deal legislation, the text notes that government must invest in infrastructure and industry so as to sustainably address challenges of the twenty first century. With little chance that such legislation will pass, however, the Biden administration has started to address supply chain problems by announcing a federal partnership program that supports community efforts to protect the environment and develop the local food economy. Under the program, communities which work in tandem with the Environmental Protection Agency will receive technical assistance to help produce healthier, locally produced food.

The White House also hopes to ameliorate vulnerabilities through $4 billion allocated through the beleaguered Build Back Better Initiative. The new effort is designed to strengthen the food system, create new markets, tackle climate change, assist marginalized communities and support decent jobs throughout the supply chain. “The COVID-19 pandemic led to massive disruption for growers and food workers,” remarked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  “It exposed a food system that was rigid, consolidated, and fragile…The Build Back Better initiative will make meaningful investments to build a food system that is more resilient against shocks, delivers greater value to growers and workers, and offers consumers an affordable selection of healthy food produced and sourced locally and regionally by farmers and processors from diverse backgrounds.”

Agriculture in California. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Agriculture in California. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Vertical Farms

Even if Build Back Better passes the Senate, however, it remains to be seen whether the federal government shares a long-term commitment, let alone ability, to address structural problems in the food supply chain. Perhaps, then, it will fall to municipalities to re-imagine such networks, and during the pandemic consumers were offered an alternative in the form of Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA’s) and food cooperatives. In contrast to supermarkets, which have found it difficult to adequately stock their shelves, food cooperatives source their products from more vendors. Because they are linked to separate supply chains, food cooperatives can be nimble during a crisis in the midst of surging demand.

Yet another innovative idea which has gotten traction is vertical farming (also known as indoor agriculture, hydroponics or controlled environment farming), which would substantially reduce supply chain issues while tackling climate change. For decades, vertical farming has been popularized in sci-fi films and aboard the International Space Station, but now the practice seems to have gone mainstream. Indeed, urban agriculture now accounts for between fifteen and twenty percent of global agricultural output, with the market forecast to grow to more than $15 billion by 2025. Farms serve as indoor crop production systems and make use of warehouses, greenhouses or other modular structures such as a shipping container.  Indeed, plants can be stacked in such bookshelf-type containers on multiple floors of buildings, which in turn produces greater yields per acre than a regular field. Crops are grown without soil by using a liquid nutrient solution that is either flowing (hydroponic), or sprayed (aeroponic).

Instead of being grown with natural sunlight, crops in vertical farms generally receive light from red and blue LEDs. Because the concentration of carbon dioxide in vertical farms is typically enriched, photosynthetic growth is more rapid. As a result, yields and quality of crops grown in such farms tend to be higher than in open-field cultivation, and require less space, to say nothing of greater harvest reliability throughout the year, regardless of external climate conditions. As an added benefit, vertical farms consume twenty percent less water than open-field production, and eliminate long-distance trucking, not to mention waste. Produce is not only fresh but hyper-local and pesticide-free. The new systems are monitored by computers, so there is little threat of contamination from bacteria such as E. coli.

Innovative Technology

Guided by technological advances in machine-learning algorithms, proprietary software and data analytics, and staffed by farmers dressed in white coats, a new generation of hydroponic farming now grows tomatoes on 45-feet-high vines, with roots bathed in rainwater. Investors, who swear by the fruit’s delicious taste, are literally salivating and hope to reinvent the fresh food supply chain. Indeed, crops grown in more recently designed hydroponic farms taste better than earlier hydroponic produce. Proponents of indoor farming claim they aren’t trying to undermine small farmers, but rather challenge the monopoly of industrial-style monoculture.

In Israel, one of the country’s largest supermarket chains will incorporate vertical farms at its stores. The produce, which is initially grown on table tops, is then planted into walls. The latter are in turn placed within outdoor containers, on the very premises of the supermarket. Entrepreneurs claim the technology is suitable not only for supermarkets, but also offices, apartment buildings or anyplace else within urban environments which lack space but may have access to many walls. Reportedly, the public will be able to purchase produce along with the soil bedding that it was originally cultivated in, which should allow consumers to benefit from all the nutritional benefits of a freshly harvested crop.

Landsat image of Central Park in New York City. Image courtesy of NASA.

New York’s New Vegan Mayor

Perhaps, new farming technology may help eliminate so-called “food deserts” in inner cities, in which residents lack access to healthy and nutritious produce. Designers have in fact proposed modular vertical farms which take the form of greenhouse-like cubes; the structures can be built anywhere in a city where there is room for a normal tree, and are maintained through renewable energy and rainwater. Crops, meanwhile, are grown in a misty aeroponic environment which requires no soil.

The innovative technology, which not only stands to address supply chain issues but also climate change, may hold appeal for large cities such as New York, which has long suffered due to food deserts. Incoming mayor Eric Adams, a long-time supporter of food justice in the African American community, has promoted innovative agriculture. An opponent of Amazonian deforestation, Adams is also a vegan and touts the health benefits of a plant-based diet. The politician, who seeks an overhaul of zoning laws which have hindered the growth of urban agriculture, wants to build “vast in-city sites that produce food for restaurants, schools and food-insecurity programs through cutting-edge techniques such as vertical farming and hydroponics.”

New York’s Vertical Farms

New York imports a large share of its fresh vegetables from California and Arizona, a distance of at least 2,500 miles. Needless to say, this leads to diminished food freshness, food waste, spoilage, long-distance travel and a substantial carbon footprint. And yet, as Adams has pointed out, New York has thousands of acres of unused rooftop space, and the city owns abundant public lands. Ambitiously, the mayor believes the city could feed as many as 20 million people in the metropolitan area through use of smart and cutting-edge technology.

“We can even establish high-yield farms on our many public housing developments,” Adams has argued, “creating jobs in communities plagued with chronic unemployment, educating a new generation in healthy living, and providing access to fresh foods right at residents’ doorsteps.”

Despite bureaucratic zoning and red tape, New York City has the largest urban agriculture system in the country due to community, rooftop and vertical gardens, and there’s no shortage of desirable roof real estate.  Though some have questioned whether vertical farms make sense in cities where real estate is at a premium, there’s no reason to compromise in New York, since the city already has hundreds of stalled construction sites, as well as vast public lands that are sitting idle. Currently, vertical farms span most of the city’s boroughs and serve rich and poor alike, in addition to fancy restaurants and supermarkets.

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one mobile indoor farm grows rows of lettuce sprouting in trays flooded with LED lights and circulating water. In nearby Tribeca, meanwhile, a basement garden produces dozens of rare herbs, leafy greens and edible flowers which aren’t naturally found in New York. In Brooklyn, a hydroponic farm sells boxed lettuce to supermarkets at competitive prices, and the produce is delivered within hours of being picked. In the Bronx, another company grows vegetables on the rooftop of an affordable housing unit.

No Silver Bullet?

Despite the many advantages associated with vertical farming, some point out that new ventures grow produce in nutrient-rich water, not healthy soil which is regarded by many as being at the center of nutrition and deliciousness. Farmers and scientists, meanwhile, have questioned whether hydroponic produce can be considered truly organic, since it is not grown on such healthy soil. What is more, vertical farms can consume large quantities of electricity, and indoor farming requires an expensive labor force of engineers, plant scientists and computer programmers.

In addition, vertical farming may also rely on urban real estate which is more costly than rural farmland. And while growing food in cities has its benefits, experts believe that overall, vertical farms will be insufficient when it comes to tackling food insecurity and dietary quality.  Indeed, some have doubted incoming mayor Adams’s optimistic claims about urban agriculture, arguing that new farms will only be able to provide a minuscule percentage of New York’s produce needs.

Perhaps, now that the pandemic has exposed the fragility of global supply chains, consumers will also wake up to the fact that such networks are exacerbating climate change. How to actually dismantle such networks is indeed a vexing and complex question from a practical standpoint, but one which nevertheless requires urgent need and attention.

The Author: Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, as well as scores of articles about the environment.

Header image: Port of Long Beach, California in February 2020. Photo: NASA Landsat

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