The first people have entered the airspace again after almost a week of non-mobility at this side of Europe. While the large number of grounded people can slowly start to return, also freight transport by air can resume itself. Schiphol is packed with just-in-time deliveries such as consumer electronics and also perishable things like flowers, vegetables and fruit. Albert Heijn reported no immediate problems last week friday in the NRC just after the closure of Schiphol, but there was optimism then about the time it would take to re-open the airspace. Most of the supermarket’s food is transported over land, specific things like tropical fruit salad might get out of stock, the newspaper reported. It might be interesting to see what is not available anymore after a week of silence in the air. This extraordinary situation might further inspire the emerging practice of urban food planning and policy.
Food planning has risen in attention (see also earlier blogs) because of the “new food equation” (Morgan and Sonnino 2010). By this, the authors refer to a combination of factors which together make that food supply matters again as a political issue. They mention amongst others:
– Rapid urbanisation and rise of the number of people dependent on food supply
– Land conflicts and new colonialism
– Climate change effects such as water stress
– The food price surge of 2007/ 2008 and consequent food riots.
Food security, therefore, has become a national security issue again in many countries. So far, however, not really for us, it seemed. The ash coming down in silence might draw extra attention to the logistic miracle of keeping the shelves full with the thirty thousand items or more per supermarket each day. A vulnerability assessment of the food system might not be such a bad idea in the light (or darkness) of an eruption of the second, much larger volcano on Iceland.
Interestingly, here in the UK, the impact of the loss of air freight was not really that noticeable. There were, in fact, statements in the Press from the large grocery multiples that less than 10% (Tesco said less than 1 %) of their fresh produce supply was affected by the airspace closures. There, was, however, another article in one of the papers which did mention large scale lay-offs in, i think, Kenya as a result of the closure.
It reminds me of the time i was driving tank truck for Esso in Vancouver. I had a load of diesel for a bulk plant north of Whistler, called Pemberton. I started my shift at 6 pm on a Friday in torrential rain. As i drove north up the Sea to Ski Hwy (as they call it there) the weather was truly horrendous. I didn’t know it, but the bridge on the hwy at Britannia Beach washed out behind me. I made my way to Pemberton, blew off the load in horizontal rain, and started to drive back empty. As i passed the Pemberton River there were standing waves in it, right beside the hwy, as high as my truck. I passed through the main town, Squamish and started to head back to Vancouver only to discover that the bridge was washed out and the hwy closed. I then learned that a bridge in Pemberton behind me had also washed out and that i, and everyone else in the area were stuck until one of these two bridges was fixed.
Now officially you are not supposed to leave a fuel tanker parked anywhere but a fuel depot, so i dropped my trailer at the Sqamish Esso dealer and bobtailed over to get the last room available in Squamish. After that everyone had to stay in emergency shelters.
The next morning i woke up and went to the only large supermarket in the area to get some supplies because all i had was my uniform, no contact lens solution, etc. By 10 am the shelves were almost bare! All fresh food, milk, bottled water, etc had already been bought. It really made me reflect on how fragile these just-in-time supply systems are. Okay, admittedly this situation is extreme — Big Environment, small people — but still. It took 56 hours to re open the road.
Everyone hunkered down, battened the hatches and brought out that pioneer spirit that isn’t so far from the surface on the West Coast. But still, it was a remarkable insight into just how fragile these systems are. (twas great for me, i got paid 56 hours straight time!)
Given the way public opinion operates, i would say that the fact there wasn’t panic buying of food in the UK represents an interesting management of the perceptions of the UK public. There was little speculation about supply chains in the press or government statements. I can easily imagine an alternative scenario, however, where the tabloid press talked up the risks, resulting in panic buying and the subsequent emptying of shelves in the supermarkets.
These matters are also about perception — indeed this thread is about perception as much as ‘reality’ (whatever that is), and this wee story shows how the two are intertwined.