business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

According to one famous political axiom, all politics is local. The food supply, however, is a very different thing.

Granted this may upset those in the locavore movement, but the reality is that we all eat foods that travel to us. Weather and farming realities make anything else pretty much impossible.

Sure, the future could offer vertical farming in cities, 3D food in our homes or even food replicators in our starships. For now though, the food supply relies on a massive supply chain that spans the entire nation and links around the globe.

And every so often we need to pay a little attention to that.

The New York Times ran a fascinating story this past weekend about a small link in our supply chain that is in danger of rupturing.

The story focused on two locks - numbers 52 and 53 - along the Ohio River, where it separates Illinois and Kentucky, just before it meets the Mississippi River. More traffic passes though those two locks than any other point on the inland waterway system. Sadly, both locks are apparently falling apart and their long awaited replacement is behind schedule.

You can count waterways, dams and locks among the many things I don’t fully understand. But the article laid out clearly why this small patch of river matters so much.

It starts with the reality that the waterways are an essential part of our supply chain. More than 70 percent of all international trade is done by water and while domestic transport is far more reliant on trucks and trains, the waterways are still a vital piece of the puzzle. None of the three modes - train, truck or water - have enough capacity to make up for a major problem in any of the others.

That means that a problem at locks 52 and 53 or any place else in the supply chain could instantly reverberate throughout the food supply, driving up both prices and product scarcity.

This is why groups like the Food Shippers of America (a group I’ve happily spoken to over to the years) talk with concern about a shortage of truck drivers and the many problems existing drivers encounter when delivering to food industry facilities. In short, many companies make the process unnecessarily difficult, disrespecting the lifelines that actually feed you.

But it’s more than this. An article about locks 52 and 53 may make even New York Times readers think a little bit more about the miracle of how efficiently and inexpensively food travels. That’s a lesson that should be shared.

The locavores actually have done all of us a great service. They have made consumers aware of agriculture in a time when so few actually work in the fields. They’ve reminded shoppers that food comes from somewhere, not just a supermarket shelf.

We celebrate local when possible, which is great, but many times it isn’t. When that’s the case we might want to provide a little education on just where the products do come from, how they get there and why a super-efficient supply chain really does matter.

Sometimes a little knowledge can go a long way as well.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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