The Responsible Business Summit 2013

07/05/2013 - 08/05/2013, London

Europe's largest and most acclaimed CSR summit. Featuring 500+ attendees 50+ speakers including; CEO of BUPA, Executive Editor of Greenpeace and Executive Editor of the Economist

Global food supply - We need to plan for system failure

Mallen Baker argues that it’s irresponsible not to make contingency plans, especially when the potential failures concern the fundamentals – such as food

Options beginning to dry up

Imagine your critical business systems depend on one computer server. This server is huge – it has immense capacity – but you have grown into that space and now every single day you are pushing it to its limit.

Any good risk manager would have furrowed brows by this point.

First of all, it’s not good to be using the system at its limit, since any problem could push it to the point of failure. Secondly, if so many critical systems depend on this one server, you would want robust back-up plans. In other words, in order to keep your business running smoothly, you would produce your contingency plans to deal with easily predictable system failures.

Now let’s substitute the global food system for the server. Here we have a system that is operating at full capacity. Any hiccups in normal production can lead to serious problems. This year we have seen such hiccups.

Droughts and other abnormal weather striking in numerous places at the same time have given us the vision of how climate change will put that already stressed food system under further stress. And we seem to think that it is OK if the current human population of seven billion continues its dizzying rise up to about nine billion.

What all this means is that we live closer and closer to the edges of what the system can produce. Which means that system failures of any size start to have brutal consequences.

We have no back-up plans. In older times, we would have grain stores to cope with the possibility of a drought. But with the numbers of people we now have living so close to the edge of what the system can provide, the ability to build up such reserves is non-existent.

We believe in the robustness of our systems. We assume any abnormalities to be temporary, and that changes brought about by climate change will produce winners as well as losers, keeping the overall balance.

Fact not fiction

The idea of catastrophic system failure is not taken seriously enough to plan for. If you talk about the possibility of the collapse of life in the oceans, it sounds like science fiction. The fact that one billion people in the world are dependent on seafood for their main protein doesn’t seem to raise the importance of the scenario in people’s minds.

If it was a computer server we were talking about, not bothering to plan for catastrophic system failure would be seen as the height of irresponsibility.

But we don’t plan. We didn’t for the dot-com crash in the late 1990s. We didn’t for the debt crisis of recent years. We rather knew there was something wrong in there – but the prevailing wisdom made questioning the possibility that things could carry on the same way to be aberrant behaviour.

This isn’t good enough. Any business contemplating their risks should at least ponder some of the following questions.

First – is this an area where we can sit back and expect governments to produce the answers? If not, then does that mean that we have a part to play?

Second – what would it mean for our business continuity if there was a system failure in global food production? Start with a relatively small one, which leads to increased food prices across the world and starvation in a few areas. Play the consequences through – additional waves of anti-austerity riots, perhaps greater protectionism, pressure on land that produces non-food crops to be switched.

We’re not far from that scenario this year, of course. But suppose it was twice as bad next year.

Now think big. What about a major catastrophic failure? Suppose we get a major eco-system collapse of ocean life. Do the research. Absorb just what that would mean for us as a planet. What are all the other systems that depend on the oceans that you might not think about? What would happen to that one billion people who are dependent? What would their governments do? How would it affect people’s hopes for their children’s futures? How would it change their buying behaviour?

Maybe you think this scenario so unlikely; it’s not worth planning for. You know, just like BP didn’t think that a deep water explosion was a big enough possibility. But the failing of the oceans is happening in front of us. How unlikely do we really think it is that it will continue to its conclusion?

Let’s not conspire to act all surprised when the predictable happens and to somehow suggest “nobody could have foreseen this”.

Mallen Baker is managing director of Daisywheel Interactive and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.

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Prepare for Change

"But suppose it was twice as bad next year." - this was the gist of the scenario we used in a recent workshop in the Prepare for Change project here in Bristol as part of the Green Capital Partnership. One important point that emerged was the sense that if fairness prevails, and is seen to prevail, then the chances of adapting well are likely to increase. Any obvious inequality will raise tensions and social order breakdowns would be expected. Early preparations for fairness through instruments such as rationing are essential, as well as management of the perception that we are all in this together - to quote a phrase.

Another point that came out was the time lag it takes to implement any large increase in local production, expanding the scale of allotments to grow more vegetables in the year of global food crisis is too late. Oh, by the way, when you look at the numbers it is chilling how little food we actually produce in the local area. In the South West we are OK for milk, cheese and maybe eggs but fresh veg, meat etc it is less than 30%. Mind you we are at 200% for malting barley for beer - so we might keep the population quiet for a while.

What Can Be Done

Let's face it: there is enormous potential for First World inhabitants to contribute, however modestly, to global food security. First, it's relatively easy to grow a few tomatoes on your apartment balcony or plant a few potatoes in the back yard. Second, First World inhabitants waste enormous amounts of food that is deemed cosmetically imperfect, or that we store too long in refrigerators containing more food than we can reasonably eat within the projected lifespan of the product. Simple awareness of such issues, if widespread and reinforced, could prove helpful in more than just a small way.

Global Food supply poverty reversal Plan A

The only assets of all living matter Soil-Water-Vegetation-Atmosphere all else comodities. 2005 PRC invited me as foreign expert to advise Government lowering CO2 and grow soil food fodder and in time forestry in deserts. I lecture to Forestry and Ag unis. Simply 2-6% of Earth's vegetation sequesters CO2e to commence growing soil Vegetation lives for more than 150yrs. We have a 100yr plan changing to ultimate historical natives. Farmers Herders taught management of CO2 sinks and soil growing. If you had room I would include visuals and expanded detail. Deserts hold serious moisture (their thermals drive "wind" generators). The CO2 sinks planted to UNFCCC 100yr rule and satellite fixed for Carbon Credit buyers to verify. Carbon trading funds all including planting audits Farmers. All carbon and money managed by a Perpetual Trust. Google will give extensive background on me and work. I have simple visuals to tell story The carbon trading income funds all
Robert Vincin

An excellent article and

An excellent article and great insights ... no doubt a perfect storm is careening down upon us...an environmental, economic and political collapse... the old paradigm has run its course ... and the recent Ethical Corp article hit it on the head "Successful Business Can be Inspired by Nature" http://www.ethicalcorp.com/environment/successful-business-can-be-inspir...
Our disconnect from the natural world is the cause of all our ills. Nature Has The Answers...if only we will put aside our egotistical notion that humans cannot exist without a healthy natural world from which we source all of our elements for products and manufacturing and that every living species depends upon for survival and well being. We can't keep taking and taking from a finite source without horrendous repercussions. And neither science nor technology can override this fact. Thank you for a very thoughtful article.

Global food supply

Human beings should always have alternatives in case of a crisis not just waiting until it has happened like the economic melt down experinced two years ago.