Food and water scarcity have been a global problem for as long as we can remember. Today, new factors—like the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval in the supply chain, and an uptick in natural disasters caused by climate change, just to name a few—are bringing to light new concerns for food shortages across the globe and here in the United States.
Water scarcity has long been caused by droughts, lack of rainfall, pollution, overpopulation, or when we simply abuse and consume way too much of it. Food insecurity has also long been a problem—even here in the United States. Ironically, this fact comes to the surprise of many people.
Journey back to 2019 for a moment, before even the pandemic hit. That year, 10.5% of U.S. households still faced food insecurity, according to The Brookings Institution. This rate was highest among households with incomes below the poverty line (34.9%) and single-mother households (28.7%). Latino or Hispanic and Black households experienced food insecurity rates of 15.6% and 19.1%, respectively—disproportionately higher than white households (7.9%).
The following year the COVID-19 pandemic spread, and the supply chain disruptions were felt everywhere (remember trying to find toilet paper). The COVID-19 pandemic led to fluctuations in domestic producer prices, particularly in the food sector, according to the U.S. BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics). And I am afraid we aren’t quite done yet seeing disruptions with our food.
Between the hurricanes and wildfires devasting the nation and the worker shortage creating chaos in the supply chain, many pundits are predicting we will continue to see food shortages through early 2022, at least.
What can we do about this? Well, for one, we need to move from our make-take-waste culture to a more circular one. This is something I talk about in my book, Sustainable in a Circular World, quite a bit. Rather than just waste food, we can redistribute it. Or we can grow it ourselves.
A circular economy moves away from the make-take-waste model and toward a more circular one where we design out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Simply, we are talking about being more restorative by design, which is having profound implications on business, economics, and governments.
We also need to address the challenges we currently face in our supply chain. We need to reskill and upskill, as suggested in this month’s cover story, and we need to leverage technology. The IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (artificial intelligence) can go a long way in helping make decisions in every business—from farming to the supply chain to distribution to retail. Efficiencies here can help the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, packaged, distributed, marketed, consumed, and even disposed. This is imperative or lives will be lost.
Other solutions can range from permaculture to food waste innovation. Things like indoor garden pods, vertical farms, and innovative food packaging can all help here. We are getting better. But much more needs to be done. We all need to find ways to address food shortages in the United States and abroad. Innovation can be combined with government programs to help here. As Brookings suggests lessons can be drawn from decades of food access analysis to inform new methods to better measure the geography of food insecurity in the United States and modernize our country’s nutritional assistance policies.
I can tell you this: This challenge is only going to get more complicated as climate change and supply-chain disruptions continue. We need to make innovation happen today.
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