Food Chain #1 : LUSENET : News Clips : One Thread April 15, 1998

Y2K and Agriculture: Potential Effects and Consequences

When considering the Y2K Problem, most people think about its impact on the economy. This fear of a recession or a decrease in services or income is certainly a valid concern. Almost all of today's livelihoods, from stock trading to truck driving depend on computers and therefore almost all will be affected.

However what most people, at least in developed countries, take for granted is the fact that while they may lose money with the Year 2000 Problem, they will always be able to put food on their table. But what if there is no food to buy, no matter how much money they may have? With the agricultural industry's dependency on computer technology to produce and distribute food, the possibility of a major food shortage does deserve some consideration.

Modern day farming is a corporate business. Agricultural products are stock market commodities which are bought and sold. In order for these products to reach the consumer, they must be traded. Delivering them to the consumer is a long intricate process of transactions: from the producer to the wholesaler, from the wholesaler to the distributor, from the distributor to the local retailer who in turn sells it to the consumer.

All of these transfers are dependent on computer transactions. If one link in this modern day "food chain" should break, the whole process will likely fail. For example, if the wholesaler is not able to purchase the shipments of grapefruits from the farmer, the crates of perishable Ruby Reds will rot in the warehouse. If the farmer is unable to sell his crop, he will not make money. Without that money, the farmer will go bankrupt and not be able to grow next season, thereby setting of a chain reaction that will end in one less farmer growing grapefruit. One after another, each business will fold if it is not able to sell its goods.

While grapefruits are hardly necessary for survival, imagine what would happen if a year's corn or wheat crop encountered the same problem. A shortage of these crops, which are indeed necessary for production of dietary staples such as bread, could spell disaster for many communities in America and around the world. Given the nature of today's market, in which very often food is delivered in relatively small amounts in order to avoid surplus, what little remains on the shelves will disappear in a matter of days.

For example, most U.S. cities have approximately 72-hour's worth of food within their borders. The U.S. as a whole only has a three-month supply. Even with a rationing system in place, necessities such as bread could become virtually non-existent or at least prohibitively expensive.

This is just the U.S., where the implications of a food shortage are small when compared to a food shortage in Third World countries. The U.S. would be able to recover from a shortage much quicker than the Third World. In this hypothetical situation, the U.S. would have to "circle the wagons" and reserve what little resources it had for itself in order to make it through the crisis while Third World countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Angola, and Haiti, which depend on food subsidies and other humanitarian aid from the West would suffer unfathomable consequences from a disruption in the food chain. Their already shaky governments could easily be toppled if the citizens faced mass starvation. Mass exoduses from the starving countries could resort thereby spreading the instability to their neighbors.

Other more independent countries in the Third World which do not rely on food aid from the West could nevertheless also face famine and civil unrest. Because of the Green Revolution introduced by Western countries in the second half of the Twentieth Century, which used products such as petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers to maximize crop yield, these "independent" Third World countries would be at the mercy of the ability of Western suppliers to deliver their necessary chemicals. Since the production of these chemicals could be interrupted by breakdowns in their factories due to embedded chip malfunctions, there exists a strong danger that Third World agricultural production would be severely limited.

Also, under this relatively new system of production, the farmers depend on hybrid seeds to grow their crops. These seeds, which cannot be warehoused due to their perishable nature and must be imported due to the fact that they do not reproduce from one year's crop to the next, are delivered in the early part of the year. In 2000, the part of the year that will be most affected by Y2K disruptions will be this crucial time. Logically, these disruptions have the potentially disastrous possibility of preventing the planting of an entire year's crops, thereby extending the Y2K recovery time for another year, with major indirect fallout to follow from this disruption for many years to come.

Seen in this light, the possibility of agricultural disruption from Y2K poses a serious threat, perhaps a threat more serious than any other aspect of the problem. The key to preventing this disaster will be insuring that the primary avenues of distribution remain open. Also, seeing as not every contingency can be accounted for, planning for some sort of disaster relief in those areas seen to be most susceptible to Y2K disruptions would be a good idea. It is up to the more technologically advanced West, which brought this economic system to the world, to rise up to this challenge.

John Yellig

-- Bill (, May 12, 1998

Moderation questions? read the FAQ