Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Cold Chain

A few winters ago I taught English in Belluno, a small town in the foothills of the Dolomites, in North-East Italy. I drove out to factories where the workers were offered free English lessons by the bosses. The factories made all sorts of things, from socks to industrial cranes to freezers. Getting in the car every morning and driving on freezing roads covered with ice, along with 100s of other drivers already confirmed my suspicions that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of an unsustainable system.

One of the factories was the largest local employer, and as such the workers felt grateful to be employed, and worked at all costs to keep the factory alive, often coming in at weekends for no salary. All well and good, especially for the bottom line, but with its own very obvious and real problems: they were busy producing hi-tech freezers for the food industry, which has been gradually converting our food away from fresh to frozen produce for the last decade or so.

Sales were drying up, as were payments for their goods, so settlement dates were extended and the freezers piled up - literally! They had at least 5,000 freezers in the warehouse, worth millions. Truckers would arrive from Russia and Eastern Europe, full of stories of their own problems regarding fuel, check-points, delays, bribes, etc. These trucks carried these heavy freezers all over Europe and beyond. They were shipped out from ports to the Middle East, where believe it or not, the market was growing...

You can call this progress or sheer insanity: I'm in the latter camp. Not only do we have refrigerated trucks and warehouses, we have refrigerated ships and even - get this - the ability to reverse refrigeration to keep food from freezing by warming it up (but not too much). This is just one aspect of what we call 'Western Civilization' and it is as foolish as it is unsustainable. It is, however, popular, and growing. That is, until it bursts, sometime soon.

The way forward for food production is to do what we did before this whole system came along: grow fresh food locally, eat, distribute and sell it locally. Amazingly it is still not too late to act: get some land, get some books and learn what grows well in your climate. Spring is nearly here, why not try some organic seeds?

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