Food Chain - Where are the weak links? : LUSENET : Millennium Salons : One Thread

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Breaking the World's Food Chain: Agriculture and Y2K

October 5, 1998

In a nation that knows little about famine or widespread hunger, the prospect of food shortages seems farfetched. But some say that it's at least a possibility if the Year 2000 millenium bug interrupts links in the chain that conveys food from the farm to your kitchen table. CBN News reporter David Snyder tests the weak links in America's food chain.

David Snyder, reporter

Do Americans take their next meal for granted?

"This is the only time in history when men and women have not stored food to make it through the winter until spring," says biologist Geri Guidetti.

"Anything that can impact the delivery of those goods to the grocery stores could cause spot shortages," says Bruce Webster of the Y2K Group in Washington, DC.

In this land of plenty, it's a little disturbing to realize that the food chain is both intricate and vulnerable.

"The average consumer nowadays doesn't have a good comprehension of what it takes putting food on the table," says farmer Bill Taliaferro.

"We underestimate the number of dependencies that go on in any activity," says Y2K authority Peter de Jager

"The more I uncovered, the more I realized how extraordinarily vulnerable the system is," says Guidetti.

Potentially vulnerable, that is, to supply problems triggered by the millenium bug. Geri Guidetti is a biologist who moderates an internet forum on Y2K and agriculture.

"The writing is on the wall," says Guidetti. "It's not only possible, but probable, that there are going to be food shortages."

That's because modern agriculture and food production have grown heavily dependent on technology. And computers and automated systems are at risk of getting bit by the millenium bug. In addition, agriculture relies on a variety of other industries to put the food on your table.

"It's a very wide, intricate chain," says Webster. "It's a global chain. We don't realize in the winter that the grapes we eat are coming from Chile. We don't realize how much food comes from outside the U.S."

This point emphasizes the fact that America is vulnerable to failures in countries which are well behind the U.S. in their efforts to solve their Y2K problems.

Even the seeds are susceptible to Y2K. Most are hybrid, and manufactured by seed companies.

"So if you're not able to grow the food because of a glitch anywhere in the process, or because you're not able to deliver the seed after it's produced -- if you have a glitch anywhere in that line -- that seed is in jeopardy, you future food is in jeopardy," says Guidetti.

Seed in hand, it's up to the farmer to get it to grow. You'd be surprised at how much technology they're using down on the farm.

Bill Taliaferro's grain farm in eastern Virginia uses GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) to help grow his crops.

"As the machine is going through the field, the GPS system is determining the position, and it's recording the yield readings at each of those positions. So when we carry the data back to the office, we can generate a map of how the yield's running."

There's evidence of technology everywhere on Taliaferro's farm: inside his huge new harvesting tractor, over at the soybean separating machine, and inside the front office. Unfortunately, Taliaferro hasn't had much time to react to the threat of Y2K.

"I admit to you that I'm just beginning to think about it," he says. "And the honest truth is, I don't think we'll fully know what the impact is until January1, 2000."

Everything could still work properly after January 1, 2000 ... but what if one renegade computer chip caused a tractor to spread too much fertilizer? There could be a delay before the crops would grow. And what if there were other problems?

"If you don't know who needs grain, if you don't know what global prices are, you don't know where you're going to get your money from, you don't know if there's credit available for the farmer or for whoever's dealing with the grain, what's going to happen to the normal grain commerce?" asks Guidetti.

Once the grain is harvested or the cows are milked, the raw produce must be shipped out for processing. And most experts pinpoint transportation as the weakest link in the chain.

"The railway systems, the trucking industry -- if they depend upon oil and gas, is that in good supply?" asks de Jager. "Have the oil companies been able to fix it?"

"And when you lok at this, it's the Soviet Union in the '80s," says Countdown 2000 producer Alan Simpson. "There's a plentiful supply of food in the field, but you can't get it from the fields to the towns to feed the population."

Or to the factories for processing, where they have potential problems of their own.

"Computers play an extremely important role in the production of food from factories, many of which are automated, down to the distribution of products," says William James of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

But James denies that any problems in food processing will result from Y2K. "We have been working on this problem for the past five to seven years," he says. "I think that we've put a tremendous amount of resources into fixing this, and we're going to be ready."

Once food is processed into canola oil or pasta, it's shipped to warehouses. Inventories, temperature controls, and shipping orders are often controlled by computer. And then the food is shipped by the highly vulnerable transportation system to your local grocery store.

"Most consumers don't really look at the supermarket as a high-tech environment," says Michael Sansolo of the Food Marketing Institute. "They probably would be surprised as to how much technology and how much data-gathering goes into making the store operate the way it does."

Retailers are spending untold millions of dollars in a last-minute rush to get ready.

"The critical area would obviously be if the scanners wouldn't work, and we couldn't get the consumers' goods purchased," says Sansolo. "In that arena, we're probably at about 90 percent Year 2000 compliant."

Guidetti counsels people to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

"There will be food shortages developing, and I think the inner cities have the greater probability, unless there's some concerted government effort to make sure the food gets into the inner cities, come hell or high water, because they are concerned with civil unrest," says Guidetti.

But James says it just isn't so. "Don't panic," he says. "There are not going to be empty food shelves on January 1, 2000. The trucks are going to be rolling."

And those trucks will be filled with food ... we hope.

From: johnk ( * 10/07/98 06:12:15 PDT



Editorial notes, October 15, 1998

1.) Grocery Manufacturer's of America has 7 references to y2k on the web. One of them is a post by supply-chain consultant Tibbet-Britten, a "world leader in logistics". They have one reference to y2k - it is, under definition, in which they describe it as the "so-called millennium bug".

Perusal of their year 2000 definition leads to a company newsletter describing their own project. The latest entry for this world leader in logistics management is May, 1998. The scope of their project seems confined to internal operations. No mention at all is given to the y2k problems in logistics that they may have encountered, though they did publish a Strategy Statement, again focused solely on internal ops.

Food Chain, anyone?

Cynthia Beal, concerned small grocer

-- cynthia (, October 15, 1998


Yardeni's essay on Food Chain.


-- Mitchell Barnes (, October 16, 1998.

Yes, I agree with what you say about the food chain being in peril. Much of the problem arises from the fact that people today don't have any idea of where most of their food comes from. If you ask them you usually get an answer like: "from the grocery store".

Very few have the necessary skills to garden and raise their own food supply and if they did, they wouldn't know the importance of having non-hybrid seeds so that they can save a part of each years crop to plant the next season as was the way of our forefathers.

One very good source that I have found for non-hybrid seeds is BACK TO EDEN Survival Seed Kits. They have a web site at:

< >

Beyond getting the correct seeds and acquiring the necessary skills to grow them, people need to get other "homesteading" skills such as raising small livestock: chickens, rabbits, etc.

With only a single growing season left before Y2K, my hope is that the general public will wakeup and get busy learning all that is required.

Sincerely, Glen Mentgen

-- Glen Mentgen (, October 23, 1998.

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