As coronavirus outbreak exposes faultlines in long supply chains, are locally self-sufficient economies the way forward?
A lot of food in India was and largely still is produced by small and marginal farmers. The lives of such farmers tended to be hard even at the best of times. The coronavirus crisis and its economic impact probably won’t leave them untouched. A shift to local may help at least some of them.
Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
I donned my mask, and bravely set forth to the local grocery shop and vegetable and fish market. The formerly boring chore was now charged with adventure and risk. Would the police whack me for being out on my errands? Would the shops be open? Would they be stocked? Most importantly, would the dratted coronavirus find its way to me, or come back home with me?
Fortunately, I encountered no policemen on my short walk of half a kilometre. Hardly any shops were open. A couple of grocery and medicine stores, and a few vegetable and fish vendors, sold their increasingly scant wares to a thin trickle of buyers. Even though this is Kolkata, there was hardly any fish available.
I spotted a man squatting on the ground in the bazaar with a little pile of small fish in front of him. It was a type of fish called “bata”, and the man said it had been fished from a nearby pond. “Hardly any supplies are coming from afar,” he said. “The fish we are getting is from what the fishermen can catch nearby.” It was good, fresh catch.
The advantages of sourcing food from close to where it is meant to be consumed are many, and obvious. Firstly, you are likely to get fresh produce. Industrial food production is perhaps necessary but it is also deeply problematic, especially when it comes to fish and meat. Secondly, the carbon footprint for transportation over long distances is reduced, and the need for cold chains is eliminated. Thirdly, the money goes into the local economy, into the pockets of a small farmer or fisherman. And finally, food grown locally for the local market is always available to those who live nearby, even in a crisis.
Before the advent of mechanised transport and all-weather roads in the 19th Century, all fresh food was local. Life everywhere in the world from the dawn of humankind was in the main lived locally. People traded with those who were in their vicinity, exchanging goods they had with those they needed. Dependence on the market for the necessities of daily life was limited. There were few permanent shops except in the largest cities. Indeed, market day even now in many rural areas is once a week or once a fortnight.
Money was not nearly as important in such a world. It was possible to live healthy lives with a lot less money. If there was rice in the fields, and vegetables in the kitchen garden, and fish and ducks in the pond, and you had your own chickens, goats, pigs or cows, and could even brew your own wine or beer, and weave and sew your own clothes…well, what exactly did you need money for in a world without telephone, electricity and internet bills?
This is, of course, a very rosy picture, because life was also hard. Farming and raising animals were not easy and depended on the vagaries of weather, the presence or absence of crop and animal diseases and pests, and backbreaking work. Ruling elites tried to extract heavy taxes, there were wars and famines, and of course, there were human diseases too. Even two generations back in India, it was commonplace for families to lose a member or two to diseases such as malaria, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia and other ailments which are routinely cured now.
The world – at least until the coronavirus struck — was a dramatically different place, for good and for ill. We could get medicines, foods, and even fruits and vegetables from around the world in our local markets. The concept of seasonal fruits and vegetables had receded; somehow, by a combination of long-range trade and chemicals, the seasons were made to matter less. Supply chains for the unlikeliest of things had become global. The shipping container and the business traveller on the aeroplane were the symbols of this globalised world.
Those are the symbols now facing a great crisis.
As the whole world has lately discovered, long supply chains are prone to sudden disruption. Something that happens in one corner of the world can have completely unforeseen knock-on effects elsewhere in this our hyperconnected world. A WhatsApp joke illustrates the situation pithily: anyone who thinks one person cannot change the world never ate an undercooked bat. What we realise now is that a single idiot anywhere in this planet of seven billion-plus humans can inadvertently do something that throws everyone’s lives out of gear.
Globalisation means we are all part of a densely interconnected network. Such networks have many advantages, but their disadvantage is that a problem anywhere can rapidly spread everywhere. A measure of resilience and stability is provided in such a situation by shorter supply chains, which enable isolation of parts of the network in an emergency. In other words, the safe option is to have locally self-sufficient economies, where local means places within easy reach by road or river, say within a radius of 150-200 km.
There are obviously innumerable products that cannot be made locally everywhere. Food, however, is possible to source locally to a substantial degree in many places. “Farm to table” was already quite trendy in developed economies even before the coronavirus struck. It was all about knowing where your food came from, often in excruciating detail, and ensuring it was from a local small farm, and in general, was organically and ethically produced.
A lot of food in India was and largely still is produced by small and marginal farmers. The lives of such farmers tended to be hard even at the best of times. The coronavirus crisis and its economic impact probably won’t leave them untouched. A shift to local may help at least some of them. “Farm to table” is tradition in India, not hipster fad. It may also help build resilience in societies and economies to the vicissitudes of globalisation, of which the present global pandemic is an example.
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