Enhancement of Food System Logistics in Response to Medical Emergencies
This contribution consists of three integral parts. The first outlines the purpose of the suggested enhancement and what that objective entails, and they represent the necessary conditions for achieving our objective. In the second part, we discuss the concrete steps needed and emphasise the importance of a rapid response. The contribution concludes with some notes on its implementation.
It will be obvious that the kind of enhanced logistics in a food system needed to cope with the food requirements of the public under any medical emergency such as the present Corona infection are identical in their characteristics. It is necessary to understand that what may differ in their nature is only the type of precautions the personnel who run the food system logistics ought to take. Since such measures are best prescribed by competent medical microbiologists, we need not take up that problem here.
Even if we should limit ourselves to food system logistics, we cannot overlook several logical facts we have to bear in mind:
- The purpose of enhanced food system logistics is to ensure the best possible food supply to end-users under a given medical emergency with the restrictions it entails.
- But the usefulness of undertaking such an enhancement depends on there being a sufficient quantity of food already available for distribution.
- Thus, useful enhancement of food system logistics and the availability of a sufficient quantity of food are logically inseparable as the two sides of a coin.
Therefore, we need a holistic, pragmatic approach here to ensure the best possible solution under the present circumstances. It is tempting to point out the obvious, viz., that such measures are difficult to undertake under a crisis, and we should have had them in place before such has arisen. However, this is of little use; so, let us see what the best we can do now. The first step we need is to determine how best we may ensure an adequate food supply to the public as soon as possible.
No government seem to have in place a food and agriculture policy segment to be activated under a medical emergency for rapid response. As a rapid response is essential, implementation of such a policy segment should be the responsibility of a central directing authority that may delegate the relevant logistic functions to a set of operators chosen for their efficiency, willingness and ability to undertake coordinated quick action.
These operators may include a variety of civilian and military operators who will act in unison under the direction of a central authority and/or its regional representatives. In situations like the present one, central government seem to be the most appropriate for the purpose. It and the operators it may chose should bear the following critical factors in mind:
- Quickness of response is of the essence.
- Therefore, no time should be lost on data collection and analysis, nor yet on research.
- For all practical purposes, information on the kind and quantity of needed food may be obtained from local food sellers, ware houses, wholesale merchants, consumer bodies, etc. As this is not an exercise in precision, such information would be a reliable enough target for logistical purposes.
- In addition to the existing storage facilities, it might be necessary to requisition extra space for food storage and deploy additional personnel to manage them. Such storage units ought to be restricted to dry foods and should be distributed to suitable outlets as fast as possible.
- In order to deal with inadequate infra-structure, extensive use of military transport is highly recommended.
- Coordinated military and civil transport should be used to carry fresh food items quickly to the targeted areas for rapid local distribution.
- Attempts to establish cold storage facilities in areas where none exists are deprecated, for such efforts are time consuming and may be of very limited real use.
- Central authorities may rapidly establish agreements with foreign suppliers/donors of food while the appropriate international organisations like the UN should do their best to provide timely financial help to expedite such procurement and its transport.
- Local authorities to whom the government has delegated the function should set up local stores of food and transport in order to distribute essential food items to the needy people of the area on subsidised prices or free of charge. This may already have become a vital necessity in large cities with slum populations.
- As the logistic capacity of where it is most needed is limited, i.e., in less affluent countries, it may be necessary to introduce food rationing and stringent anti-hoarding measures to support the logistics. Indeed, one has personally experienced difficulties in procuring some essential dry foods while living in an affluent country at the beginning of the present pandemic.
- In less affluent countries, transport may become a significant obstacle to rapid deployment of food supplies. While the central authorities may be able to requisition some local vehicles, international help may be needed to procure the necessary fuel and more vehicles for the purpose.
So far, we have discussed two aspects of the logistics involved in the selling sub-system of a food system. However, as we have noted earlier, this part of food system can operate only as long as food is produced by its yielder/harvesting sub-system. Fisheries represent a harvesting sub-system operating in nature i.e., sea and bodies of fresh water. Yielder sub-system often depends on a supplementation sub-system that provides fertiliser, biocides, irrigation, etc., which supplements the deficits in ecosystems services on which agriculture depends.
Therefore, in order to ensure the usefulness of the enhancements in logistics we have discussed so far, it is also necessary to improve the logistics as they are required by the yielder/harvester and supplementation sub-systems of a food system. The very first contributor to this discussion has pointed out the problems caused by its neglect. We must now look at how to enhance the logistics of food production/harvesting:
- Quick procurement of seeds for planting, animal feed, fertilisers, etc., for timely distribution to farmers.
- Similar procurement of necessary fuel spares for farm machinery, etc., for distribution.
- It is very important that no new crops or domestic animals are introduced to food producers at this juncture. What is needed is a rapid and steady production of essential food and this can hardly be achieved by introducing new things to the farmers in less affluent countries who are not ‘expert’ agriculturalists. Practical people need pragmatic support to do what they can do best at present. When appropriate, the authorities may support a moderate increase in the areas of cultivation.
- Authorities may have to face a reduction in the number of people engaged in food production owing to Corona infection. In order to overcome this difficulty, military and civilian volunteers may be recruited to replace them under the direction of agricultural extension workers and local farmers.
- Procurement of the items listed above may require financial assistance from international bodies like the UN and other relevant donors. Under no circumstance should donors demand changes in the kinds of food produced or the methods of production currently in use.
Successful implementation of the proposed strategy viz., enhancement of food system logistics as an important aspect of the policy of ensuring the best availability of essential food items at an affordable price during the present crisis has to meet the following requirements:
- Rapidity of implementation; should the current pandemic continue, the danger in a fairly rapid decrease in food production and slowing of food preservation, storage and distribution may be anticipated. This will have disastrous consequences in loci of deprived populations like slums, rural areas, and even cities of high population density. This might lead to a geometric increase in the numbers of the hungry, and hunger is the most potent factor that compels people to override their scruples as historical examples illustrate. Therefore, it is essential to act immediately before the available food supplies run below the critical level.
- In order to ensure timely results, actions involved in food production, preservation, storage and the required logistics should only aim at a quantitative increase rather than any qualitative change, for time is short and the consequences of failure are grave.
- Skilled actors simultaneously performing different scrip’s to entertain the public can only confuse the people. Likewise, independent sources undertaking diverse efforts to enhance the food system logistics would only result in delay and waste.
- Authorities should understand that commercial food production, preservation, cooking (industrial food) and selling entities employ logistics to ‘maximise’ their gains. During the present crisis it behoves the governments elected by the people to override commercial motivation of the private sector and place public welfare as its most important goal. Doing so may require any combination of the following actions:
- Taking control of the commercial food production units (farms of every kind) to the extent that the requisite part of their output is directed to be delivered to outlets where it is most needed. Such output should be delivered in their uncooked form as flour, meat, fish, vegetables etc. Commercial entities may utilise this opportunity to show their sense of social responsibility by gladly volunteering to do this.
- Government should actively seek help from the military and national volunteer organisations to assist it in implementing the actions suggested here. All involved in this work should be directed by the central authority of the national government which may be delegated to appropriate local bodies. No independent operators should be allowed to act outside the strategic plans listed here. Total coordination of all actions is an absolute necessity under the present circumstances.
- All logistical support directed at yielder/harvesting and supplementation sub-systems should be under the operational direction of local agricultural extension officers or skilled local farmers/fishermen. Here, it is important to keep out the outside experts from offering unsolicited and inappropriate advice.
- We cannot offer any generic description of the optimal food outlet as conditions vary so much. It may even be necessary to establish rough and ready food depots in some areas neglected by larger commercial enterprises like outlet chains. Some of the possible outlets targeted by enhanced logistics may be any of the following:
- All local cooperative shops.
- Independent retailers.
- Emergency food outlets organised by the local authorities, volunteer groups, etc.
- Military units deployed locally to distribute free food parcels for the poor.
- It is highly recommended that the expertise in logistics in the military is fully and productively utilised as it is far superior to that of the civilian bodies.
- While we have always advocated a wholesome and varied balanced diet commensurable with local food culture as our ideal, this becomes somewhat academic when the conditions are grave. Therefore, we now emphasise the need for a quantitative sufficiency of food at an affordable price. However, we do not support such sufficiency to be achieved with any ready-made foods, hence our previous insistence on the distribution of raw materials to be cooked at home.
In conclusion, we must emphasise once more the urgent necessity of undertaking these enhancements of food system logistics as soon as possible in order to avert a looming disaster; it is not just a matter of nutrition, for we should never underestimate the power of mass hunger to override our moral and social scruples. The resultant behaviour would tear the current social fabric fragile as it is in many places, plunging the world into another dark age. Its progress would be rapid, for it would escalate geometrically. Hence the urgent need for action now and debate can be safely left to the posterity.
We have not sketched nuts and bolts of implementation because there are too many variations in logistical needs. Even in the affluent countries, where the tools needed for logistics are in place, their current deployment is far from being optimal. In less affluent countries, suitable vehicles, storage facilities and of course, the whole of food production may have to be supplemented. Thus, nobody can afford to be complaisant, and need to act. Here, a well coordinated international action to fill the short falls in food supplies and equipment in many countries will be necessary. It is hoped such assistance will be forthcoming without time being wasted in fruitless and acrimonious discussions and/or inept waste of time in data collection, analysis and research. Critical times call for prompt and appropriate action, and these can only spring from a holistic synthetic approach.
Mr. Lal Manavado