How’s our subsistence economy doing? An archaeologist’s perspective on our food supply, self-distancing policies, and what is essential
Last week I was thinking about how pandemics impact the business of archaeology. How we are, or rather are not, prepared to deal with accessing digital documents and data to go about our daily work routine (especially in CRM where access differs dramatically state-to-state). Access to information, documents, and digital data is changing and is dramatically different than it was 10 to 20 years ago. But being isolated at home, I’ll admit that my thoughts are continually shifting to other aspects of what archaeology has taught me about past and current human behavior. As an archaeologist, understanding changes in subsistence practices has been a large part of my academic career (I’ve studied bison jumps on the Great Plains, small-mammal hunting in the Amazon, and mammoth hunters in Paleolithic Germany), so I feel like I should put that esoteric knowledge to use. Right now, it appears that our current practice of self-distancing is having a tremendous impact on our economic trajectory, especially related to our “new” brand of subsistence economy. Our current subsistence practices as they stand in this new covid-19 landscape, especially related to food security, do not appear to be (to use an overused phrase) sustainable or resilient.
When I originally started doing archaeology, I was interested in prehistoric subsistence patterns. Humans had been hunter-gatherers for the better part of +240,000 years. That’s a long time to perfect your craft. That behavior developed across all continents, except of course Antarctica, and over many climatic phases (Interglacials, the Last Glacial Maximum, Little Ice Age, regional droughts, etc.). And then the Holocene happened, with a more stable climate, and with it ushered a new economy in the forms of pastoralism and subsistence agriculture. Humans turned to cultivating local plants, domesticating animals, and honing a new economy. And like their HG ancestors, that craft was refined over large expanses of time and space. Dr. Robert Kelly’s book the 5th Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future (which is a must read) discusses how humans have experienced several radical, almost incomprehensible to previous generations, economic/lifestyle shifts. And today, as a result of the industrial revolution we now have industrial-levels of subsistence agriculture; that is our true “new normal”. No longer are we subsisting off local family farms, killing and butchering our own animals for meat, and harvesting our own wheat to make bread. Rather we’re dependent upon wage labor for supplying meat, grains, and vegetables, to process and package those items, to ship those derivative products, and place those products on store shelves for us to purchase. Seems like an incredible departure from the optimal forager, stalking the wily bison across the plains, living in our small bands, co-existing as part of a larger ecosystem.
In the United States (and the rest of the “1st World”), our subsistence, our daily bread, is now tied to a larger economic engine. During this period of self-distancing for the purposes of curbing the spread and mortality of a corona virus, people largely aren’t working; rather only people with essential jobs are “allowed” to work. Naturally, I assumed that people working in the food industry are essential, right? On average, food travels 300 miles from “farm to fork” (Zsidisin and Ritchie 2009), so there a lot of moving pieces to make that happen. But what is the current state of our subsistence economy? Are famers able to plow and plant their fields, or are their delays because they can’t get needed parts for equipment? Are stock yards adequately feeding and caring for livestock, or are they experiencing operational issues because they can’t purchase needed equipment, like replacement fencing because the local Quality Farm & Fleet is closed? Are the employees at meat-packing plants processing chickens or are employees being sent home, shuttering the factor? There are so many interwoven components to our subsistence economy and by self-distancing to slow the spread of a corona virus, are we setting ourselves up for major problems with our food supply?
The rallying cry about impacts to our economy, in my opinion, is not just about being able to shop at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Hobby Lobby, the local comic book store, or any of the other thousands of businesses that are shuttered. My concern here is related to the impacts on our subsistence economy. I haven’t fully researched what happened to our food supply during the Black Plague or the Spanish Flu, but my guess is that there were major interruptions, but not collapse. Because of an enormous death rate, largely due to lack of hygiene and poor food quality , family farm labor was decimated and crops went unplanted and unharvested leading to starvation in areas. It’s likely that the wealthy didn’t suffer terribly, nor will they today, but many may. If our economic policies related to this virus do not clearly prioritize truly essential work, like farming, food processing, and the ancillary business that support such, then we’re in serious trouble. Likely more so than what could befall our society if the corona virus spread in normal manner. Maybe our food supply is not as resilient as we thought.
Reopening our “economy” is not a black or white issue; how and when it should reopen needs to be done as a well-thought out cost-benefit analysis. And not just what is the cost of exposure to a corona virus, which has a highly variable, and yet fully unknown, mortality rate (based on age-demographics and how each region is treating the virus).
So, what are those costs? I’m not qualified to answer that properly, but let’s try to think, critically, about ALL costs social-distancing has on today’s subsistence economy; including the ramifications to our food supply and what a lack of food means. Food insecurity coupled with self-isolation, unemployment, and social divisiveness on what the it means to self-distance doesn’t bode well for social cohesiveness during times of emergency.