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4. Food Routes

Published onApr 16, 2020
4. Food Routes

In the summer of 1968, I lived on a small farm in Cossonay, a village in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, a sub-alpine range bordering France and Switzerland. I was there for a summer language program to live with a Swiss family. More than a language immersion program, the experience gave me a vantage point from which to see how small farms send their harvest to markets.

Mornings on the farm were perfumed with baking bread, steaming milk, bowls of fresh raspberry jam, and a deep yellow block of butter made from our cows’ milk. During the summer afternoons, the torpid atmosphere was thick with the aromas of fermenting alfalfa and the freshly slaughtered rabbit that hung from the bathtub faucet. Attenuated rivulets of rabbit blood slowly drifted toward the drain. Working and living on a farm is sensual, a detail that complicates our move toward a digital food system.

After breakfast each day, the family milked the cows, drawing enough cream-infused milk to fill two metal milk cans. Monique, the family’s daughter, and I would walk along the road on summer evenings, pulling a wobbly cart with the two sloshing milk cans to the village cooperative storage tank. We’d also take the shelled peas and other vegetables we’d picked that day to the cooperative freezer, all transported on a handcart similar to the one we used to move those milk cans to the village.

Shiny stainless steel tanker trucks lumbered up the mountain roads every week to take the milk from the village cooperative to Lausanne, where it entered a distribution center for a chain of cooperative markets. Buckets of peas, raspberries, and corn lined the village’s chilled shelves, awaiting the chilled trucks that transported product to Lausanne. Every day the routine was the same. We were small cogs in the complex machinery of the food supply chain, “intermodal” in today’s logistics word.

In some parts of the world, though probably not in Switzerland, the transportation of our food from farm to market moves at the same leisurely pace as it did fifty years ago. But in most cases, our food now moves with remarkable speed. After all, the ability to eliminate the time it takes to send our food to us from its origin is the superpower for our food supply chain. The less time it takes, the safer and fresher our food remains. And less waste results as we conserve energy and limit time on the shelf.

Without the physical movement of food from one place to another, we really don’t have a supply chain. In the future, when we can see food as energy in the form of calories, and then as nutritional information, our food supply chain might be moving as much data as physical ingredients. But now we move physical things. And it requires a lot more energy to move energy in the form of calories than it will when we move bytes, bits, and nibbles.

The Network

The whole idea of a food system with its chain of activities across space implies a network of sorts. At first, our network was bipedal, then quadruped as food traveled from the ground to our mouths. We carried it in baskets on our heads or backs. Then we domesticated animals to perform the same tasks, speeding up delivery and enabling us to move larger quantities of food further afield. As we discovered new technologies such as steam and combustion engines, larger quantities of food and a more diversified diet became available to more and more people, faster, and farther away.

The essence of a food supply chain is the movement of energy through a network, from bushels to bytes, first through physical space and then through the Internet of Things and the Internet of Food. New transportation technologies may end up favoring data over things—bytes over bites—and while we can’t yet understand the consequences of this change, we know some will be unintended and surprising. The transformation of the chain from bites to bytes is revolutionary. Perhaps as revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution.

But today, we’re occupied with sending bites, although there are bytes involved. One person using bytes to transport bites is Annette Womack. She’s a food truck driver. Not a food truck dispensing breakfast tacos, but a fifty-three-foot trailer attached to a chassis. On one day in 2015, she looked out over the group gathered in the parking lot of Giant Food in Landover, Maryland. Coworkers, policemen, and city officials awaited her remarks as she accepted the award for 2015 Maryland Truck Driver of the Year. Her thirty years as a driver for Giant Food has taken her into city streets for daily deliveries. Annette keeps an eye on the temperature inside her trailer, aware that an increase in temperature above the required thirty-five degrees could mean the loss of thousands of dollars of food. She uses a computer to optimize routes and communicate temperatures inside her trailer. She’s an example of the bridge between human intelligence and artificial or machine intelligence. In order make deliveries, Annette uses years of experience on roads and at loading docks to provide knowledge about the quality of road surfaces and the best times to arrive at certain loading docks. While she uses software that helps her optimize her routes, her on-the-ground intelligence comes in handy to avoid obstacles that the app doesn’t know about yet. Hundreds of software programs are now available that offer route suggestions that will minimize fuel consumption and wait times. Some add tracking and tracing of shipments, and many now provide shippers real time tracking on a cell phone, like your pizza delivery service.

Every day we see trucks similar to the one Annette drives. Sometimes they feature images of the food inside, big brands promising a meal on its way to your plate. They rumble along the highway moving frozen pizzas, produce, shiny milk tankers, or livestock with their silhouettes visible through the slats.

Trucks like Annette’s travel on roads that join the global networks moving food from farm to table. These networks keep our supply chain in motion, resembling the arteries of the human metabolic system as they move energy in the form of calories into and away from cities. Trucks join other food movers, such as airplanes, ships, and railroads. Each “mode,” as they are called, has its own cost-benefit profile, and everyone along the supply chain weighs in with their needs and budgets. Food delivered à la mode.

Much like computer networks, food networks have bandwidths, impedance problems, friction points, hubs, and energy requirements. In Marco Polo’s time, camel caravans created their own networks, both wet and dry, over land and over seas. The networks connected cities, markets, and emerging trading centers while faced with limited bandwidth, forage requirements for animals, and deadly attacks in unfriendly territories.

Even though our networks allow the speedier movement of food, they are still subject to hijacking, derailment, hurricanes, and fuel shortages. We are entering a new stage of food networks, and it will require careful navigation between the analogue and digital worlds.

The routes our food takes to our plates usually include a combination of networks and carriers that make up our transportation infrastructure. The food networks include dirt pathways, roads, railways, shipping lanes, and air space. Each network has its own characteristics and economics, and food logistics is the art of picking the right mode of transport to deliver maximum food safety at minimal cost. First, there’s the mode of transport, then there’s the distribution system, or how all the modes fit together in order to get food from one place to another. Not everyone has the luxury of point-to-point delivery, and many routes require intermediate hubs in order to redirect specific shipments. Today’s networks are sprawling, with hubs at critical junctures. In the future, we may have more localized networks with even more hubs.


One of the most common “modes” is truck transport. Think of a road as a two-way path between your plate and a field somewhere. The highways that connect our cities trace the pathways of early food movers. The camels traveling across the Silk Road, the principal highway in 2000 BCE, carried salt and spices along a trade route between the Mediterranean and Asia. That network is still operating today, and China’s Chairman Xi Jinping has a plan to modernize it with the maritime path from Fuzhou along the southern China coastline to Central Europe. In the United States, most of the food we consume travels over the highway system.1 And many of those highways began as cattle trails.

The gas-powered internal combustion engine that put freight on our road network in the form of trucks came only after decades of reliance on the steam-powered external combustion engine. When steam technology arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cargo almost sprinted to market, relative to horse and human power. Steam power and metallurgy enabled railways to connect cities in the nineteenth century, as modern technology enabled food to travel over greater distances, enlarging a city’s foodshed. Before horses, and certainly before steam engines, humans could cover about eight miles in a day.2 After steam locomotives gained traction in the business of cargo transport, food could travel hundreds of miles in a day. For the first time in history, food could move faster over land and sea than by horse, and consumers could get food from farther away at a lower cost.

Rumbling alongside us on the highway, trucks are the most visible food movers. They swarm around us every day as we work our way through the morning traffic. If we are especially early morning commuters, we feel like we’re driving through a pinball machine, flipping back and forth between double-parked tractor-trailers.

Considering the costs of transport and the fragility of the cargo, logistics managers decide which mode is optimal. Trucks win when food needs to get to places outside other networks, such as rail and water networks. More than 31 million trucks were moving freight over US highways in 2015.3 Some are reefers—refrigerated trucks hauling cold goods; others, straight trucks (with bodies mounted to their frames) hauling milk, meat, or pizza dough. Most of the food-transport trucks we see on the road today are hooked up to semitrailers that are typically fifty-three-feet long. You can see the measurement on the outside of the trailer, printed in big, black Helvetica type. Some are refrigerated, some are half full, and many blare images of cheesy pizza or silvery fish being hauled out of a Rocky Mountain stream.

Some of these trucks are specialized to cater to the needs of certain food commodities, such as milk, oils, grain, and produce. Cold-chain shipments require temperature controls, while other shipments simply need a shape that allows easy loading and unloading, like funnels for grain and hoses for oil. One type of truck that relies on reefers is the behemoth beverage truck parked in front of convenience stores, its Jumbotron sides blazing beverage brands. These are specialized for beverage delivery. The person with the handcart piled high with craft beer six packs is often holding an inventory management device that connects customer accounts to warehouses and orders throughout that distributor’s network.

Our mouths water during our rush hour traffic jam. We guess at where the trucks come from and where they’re going. And we’re mostly wrong in our assumptions. These trucks may be going from one seaport to another or between food service distribution centers or from a local farmer’s field. The trucks are powered by diesel fuel, and the faces of the drivers are barely visible. Those drivers may gradually disappear from our food landscape. Fewer and fewer humans want to sit behind the wheel in traffic for long periods of time with only seedy truck stops between destinations. And now, some of their freedom to roam is being curtailed, or at least monitored, by the new requirements for tracking and tracing devices.

Getting food to us in trucks requires not only roads and trucks but also logistics that search for the shortest distance between any two cities on a delivery route. The need for a safe and speedy journey relates directly to the success of getting fresh food to our plates. Logistics managers use the traveling salesman problem (TSP) to find the shortest route, enabling a driver to take less time and use less fuel. This is classic optimization, the gospel for food logistics planners, and the foundation for many of the algorithms used by delivery services. Circuit riders, messengers, the post office, FedEx, Amazon, and UPS all have to grapple with the TSP. The computer algorithms that calculate these routes will become supercharged with the integration of artificial intelligence, which will merge real-time consumer demand with routing and inventory.

Trucks with drivers may soon be replaced by driverless trucks, geotagged and connected with smart city-type sensors and trackers. All this optimization software accounts for the details of truck capacity, product handling, loading, staging, production capacity, and consumer demand, all with the end goal of optimizing routing, minimizing cost, and meeting the production schedule and inventory capacity. The programs consider the realities of a truck arriving, unloading, and departing a specific location and account for obstacles like traffic and narrow streets. The software also uses information about trucks to match their constraints and includes “touch costs,” which are the costs associated with the actual physical touching of the product.

Many of the transport optimization software programs fit the definition of “process control software.” The process software crowd calls the task “enterprise resource planning,” so you’ll hear about ERP whenever someone describes how they use software to manage their truck fleet, inventory practices, or food processing. Basically, it’s software that manages all the processes in a business, and the food supply chain is crawling with it. The growing interest in IoT makes ERP even more interesting. If sensors can collect data from multiple points along the supply chain, the opportunity for creating an even more dynamic and adaptive supply chain is within reach.

In the context of new digital food distribution technology, trucking may seem outmoded, and yet it’s an industry that is innovating faster than shipping, rail, and airfreight. Labor unions, tradition, and industry attitudes toward risk slow down the integration of even basic technology in some of these transportation industries. The US law requiring a tracking device for each trucker—an electronic logging device (ELD)—is creating another cloud of Big Data that will reveal friction points through a trucker’s journey and likely fuel the move toward autonomous vehicles (AVs). Unions won’t take these changes sitting down.

In 2018, the shortage of truck drivers was exacerbated by the ELD requirements that limited the number of hours truckers could drive their loads from food production sites to ports and railyards. Trucking companies may break down long hauls of commodities such as soy beans into multiple, shorter hauls, putting trucking schedules out of sync with container availability and port capacities. No change within our food supply system goes unnoticed.

Still, it’s likely that our existing food trucking networks will remain even as AVs enter the highway system. Trucks are still good for last-minute “hot shot” deliveries (those small, last-minute delivery trucks), remote point-to-point trips, and their relative low costs compared to some of these newer options. That may all change in the future, of course. And humans will mostly likely remain in the truck cabs, riding shotgun and answering email while monitoring the digital displays in much the same way airplane pilots have been companions to their autopilots for decades.

AV technology, not to mention GPS and other technologies, has entered the conversation about the future of the trucking industry. Most of the routing logistics solve mundane issues, such as lessening the wait time at loading docks or minimizing what the trucking industry calls less-than-full-load (LTL) trucks. Anthony Levandowski, formerly of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, points out that 15 to 20 percent of truck miles are empty, paving the way for innovation in loading and routing. And whether the trucks are full or not, they may travel in packs, sort of. One company, Peloton Technology, uses Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) technology that enables one truck to read the behavior of another truck to coordinate the controls of both trucks.4 This “platooning” of trucks decreases the fuel consumption and increases safety.

Attention to who’s at the steering wheel will meet those who are working on electric vehicles that will rearrange our transportation landscape away from fossil fuel stations to recharging networks. What will happen to gas stations when autonomous electric vehicles (we assume the AVs will also be electric) take over our road systems? In 2018, Reebok and Gensler announced a new role for gas stations that would turn them into electric charging stations that provide other forms of human recharging: fitness centers, farm-to-table food stores, rest areas, and coworking and community spaces.5 More than gas stations may change. What about parking garages? A new space for urban farms?

In 2016 Uber purchased Otto, a San Francisco–based company testing driverless truck technology, and announced Uber Freight, increasing the competition among Amazon, Google, Apple, and Uber for self-driving trucks.6 The potential for optimized truck routes and loads is fueling the driverless technology experiments. Driverless trucking would change driver compensation and impact the limit on load weights.

All of these changes would impact the other modes of transport, such as railways. And as of 2018, the decline in the number of truck drivers continues.7 Trucking industry forecasters say e-commerce will increase the demand for drivers, but those driverless trucks may fill the gap if the industry can’t find humans to drive trucks the old-fashioned way. And it doesn’t help trucking industry recruiters who are trying to hire truckers when the media keeps predicting the arrival of driverless trucks. Already in 2016, Anheuser-Busch used a self-driving truck to deliver beer. Volvo and Waymo are putting driverless trucks on the road, testing software and hardware that will integrate warehouses and distribution centers into an autonomous freight network.

Perhaps on their way to this new vision for our trucking networks, at least four companies, including Tesla, have announced their production plans for driverless trucks.8 Don’t be surprised if Amazon, UPS, DHL, and other carriers line up as customers. The new trucks will take less fuel to operate and in some cases will be electric, not requiring fossil fuels at all. And with the promise of increased power, speed, and safety, these new vehicles will have key advantages over the old diesel trucks. But we’re a ways off from delicious ice cream delivered by driverless electric trucks. Just getting the battery technology to keep up with the long-distance routes will be one reason for delays in implementation. And prices for these new trucks are still higher than traditional trucks, so we’ll need more of these quiet trucks on the road before costs come down. But with Google and other tech companies on the road to deliver AVs, don’t be surprised at the speed and frequency of product announcements. And yes, government regulations will attempt to stall progress, but there may be a good reason for at least some caution when it comes to pitting humans against machines on the road.

But what about the truck drivers? How do they feel about all this?

For years now, the relationship between truckers and the governing bodies that regulate them has been contentious. Common carrier regulations also apply friction to innovation, but truckers have been focused on pushing back against the regulations intended to protect their cargo and their health. In 1935 the Motor Carrier Act regulated the trucking industry, defining for the first time the hours a trucker could work and the types of commodities those trucks could transport. By 1980, trucking had become the dominant mode for transporting commodities, including food, and the US government began deregulating the rates and routes. By 2000, however, the United States had begun to regulate the number of hours a trucker could drive again, electronically tracking the trucks and drivers. But a trucker’s life, as Annette would agree, isn’t easy, and talk of driverless trucks has some trucking companies and truckers worried.

Since there has been a shortage of truck drivers, there are fewer concerns on a regulatory level. But still, those who drive our food around have cause for alarm. They will need new skills and may not want to make the effort to learn or acquire new certifications. And sitting in a cab as a backup to a computer isn’t quite what truckers had in mind. The independent character of most drivers might mean they don’t want to hand over the steering wheel or take orders from an algorithm that tells them to make a left-hand turn when they know from years of experience that a right-hand turn is best for that time of day in that particular town. Already, just a few months after truckers were required to use the logging devices, the logistics headlines claim that shipments are taking longer and costing more.

Annette probably isn’t concerned about the future of her job, but after her retirement, her company will have more trouble than in the past filling her shoes. And even when they do fill her shoes, they will find that trucks face a changing landscape for food transport. With the politics of localism gathering momentum across the globe, the routing of our food may encounter some new roadblocks. BREXIT, TPP, and revisions of NAFTA in North America may change the way we grow and transport food. It’s not yet clear what the desire for local instead of global means in terms of where we source food, but the reconsideration of global food trade policies makes everyone a little nervous about the future of food production and our transportation infrastructure. The trucks are caught up in these negotiations, and they may slow down investments in road infrastructure until it becomes clearer how the supply chains will work within this new vision of local sourcing and nationalism.


In the United States today, there are four big rail networks that move our food: Norfolk Southern, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), CSX, and Union Pacific (UP). According to the Association of American Railroads, 5.7 percent of US railroads moved agricultural goods, including 99 million tons of food products, from farms toward our tables in 2016.9 Norfolk Southern sends food in bulk throughout the eastern half of the United States, and BNSF covers bulk shipments in the western United States. CSX, the operator of Tropicana Juice Trains—trains designed to transport our orange juice from Florida—began as a single railroad company called the Baltimore and Ohio Network in 1827. The headquarters is now in Florida, and the company’s rail network transports food and other commodities throughout the eastern half of the United States. The UP still moves most of the rail cargo within the western half of the country, traversing twenty states and operating on almost 32,000 miles of railroads.10 Rail networks in the United States and worldwide will require major investments in infrastructure to synchronize changes happening in every other part of our distribution networks. Freight trains carrying food commodities are always competing with passenger rail service for tracks and other resources.

Following other transport modes such as shipping, railways respond to economic pressure by consolidating. In the case of railways, one way to aggregate resources is simply to make trains longer.11 Another way to cut costs will be by removing humans. Driverless trains, meet driverless trucks. Tracks designed to handle passenger traffic will still contend with freight as we continue to try to integrate all our food supply networks in a way that optimizes time, distance, cost, and quality. For the present, though, railroads will exhibit their willingness to use driverless trains only for safety and maintenance use cases.

Union Pacific, around since the nineteenth century, has been using tech such as sensors and lasers for decades. Its freight trains, the ones transporting our food, use “machine vision,” a complex remote scanner that captures data from moving trains to enable UP to see train defects, order parts, and allow repairs en route without waiting for parts to arrive. Driverless trains are here, and these intermediary improvements may help trains keep on track before the robot trains come. Outside of the food industry, the mining industry is already running driverless trains operated by companies like Rio Tinto, and Europe, Australia, and Africa already run driverless trains to transport mining operations. Plan to see more driverless freight trains carrying grain and other commodities as soon as the labor unions give up their insistence on dictating the number of crewmembers required for freight trains.


In Boston one morning, the container ship MSC Anisha lolled against the wharf, kept against the dock by the steady pressure of a tugboat pushing on its side. The boat had traveled for eight days from Amsterdam, and the cranes overhead were jockeying containers on and off its deck. This is what sending food around the world looks like today. Hundreds of years ago, food moved along rivers and canals, but in much smaller cargo holds. Today, shipping food on ships is one of the most cost effective, if not the fastest, ways to get food to our plates. Similar to rail transport, the speed of ocean transport is suited to low-value food commodities such as grains and meat. From 2016 to 2017, the United States exported over 8 million metric tons of wheat, mostly aboard container ships.12

The practice of using vessels to transport food over water has largely been known for its ability to move large quantities around the world at a lower cost than trains, planes, and trucks. (See the section “Intermodal Networks” later in this chapter for a discussion of shipping containers.) But these vessels also use the lowest-grade fuel, called bunker fuel, to run their engines and have lagged far behind other industries when it comes to digital systems for navigation, loading, unloading, and tracking and tracing of ships. By spoofing GPS, hackers have demonstrated their ability to be modern-day pirates, making ships disappear while the marauders capture the crew and haul away their bootie. Professor Todd Humphries, a GPS expert at the University of Texas at Austin, demonstrated such a tactic as far back as 2013, so by now the spoofers have probably gotten pretty good at diverting goods. When it comes to driverless container ships, those hackers won’t have to worry about the human crew—only the cybersecurity systems installed on the ship. Aside from the financial loss related to losing shipments of food, loss of life could result if nations are unable to receive critical food aid and food companies don’t receive enough food to feed their populations.

The lower costs of transporting food on oceangoing ships are offset by the costs of ocean pollution caused by the use of bunker fuel, lost shipping containers, and general contamination of oceans. Bunker fuel is a low grade, thick, viscous form of petroleum fuel used by container ships. The fuel leaves behind a Sasquatch-size carbon footprint and burns slowly, adapted for long journeys across oceans. Keep an eye on the prototypes launched by the Japanese company Eco Marine Power and the Norwegian company Kongsberg Gruppen. Both are engineering cargo ships that will use renewable fuels that combine solar and wind power with batteries to replace bunker and diesel fuels.

The water network isn’t limited to ships crossing oceans. The London Canal Museum sits on the Battlebridge Basin, right next to the Regent’s Canal. It’s also near Kings Cross Railway Station, a hub for trains moving people and goods to and from the north of England. The proximity of the basin, canal, and railway station weaves together the story of how food distribution hubs and supply chains evolve together. Think of canals as human-engineered waterways that transport goods and people in the absence of natural rivers. Sometimes canals connect two rivers, extending their potential as navigable transportation routes. When rivers aren’t navigable, a canal can be a useful substitute, circumventing obstructions or enabling year-round transport throughout dry seasons. Barges have transported food such as grain and wine along canals since early civilizations could produce surpluses. Dating back to tenth-century China, canals formed some of the earliest networks for the movement of food.

Perhaps the best known of those waterways is the Panama Canal. First attempted by the French in 1880 and taken over by the United States in 1903, this engineering marvel was built by mosquito-ravaged laborers as they cut a path between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. In 2016, the Panama Canal became bigger and wider through the addition of a super-Panamax side lock and the widening of other areas, including Lake Gatun and the Miraflores locks. Since over half of all the US agricultural products travel through the canal, this expansion will have an impact on the movement of food around the globe. The larger ships, made to pass through the enlarged canal, make it possible to transport almost 200 percent more containers per ship.

The barges that travel the Mississippi River on their way to the Panama Canal carry overwhelming quantities. Sixty of the fifty-foot semitrailers you see on the highway could dump their contents into just one barge on the Mississippi. The Mississippi River carries more food and farm products than any other commodity. During the month of June 2017, 37,900 tons of food and farm products were “upbound,” and 824,610 tons were “downbound.”13 Now that’s a lot of grain, even if it is moving at a crawl.

While canals and barges may seem slow and low-tech in this world of digital networks, they are still competitive in today’s food supply chain. Consuming less fuel than trains, barges and their companion tugboats will continue to play a role in the movement of bulk food commodities to shipping ports around the world. Whether it’s barges or container ships, moving our food by sea is more cost effective than any other transport mode because of the scale of the shipments. This is why it costs less to ship Atlantic cod to Thailand for processing before returning the filets to the US markets. Costs of shipping by sea combined with lower labor costs make it difficult to rationalize keeping our food closer to home. The economics of logistics often create these paradoxes that seem outside rational frameworks that argue for drawing a straight line between producer and consumer. Not so with competing labor and transport markets. Just ask your local squid purveyor about sourcing the gangly fare and wait for a surprising response.

Shipping our food may become more complicated as shipping companies consolidate along with food companies themselves. When the global economy falters and current rates interfere, ships and their containers go partially full, or even empty. The economy in 2016 and 2017 created enough pressure on shipping companies to set off a round of mergers and acquisitions in order to remain profitable. One company, Hanjin, infamously went bankrupt in 2016, leaving cargo and ships at sea. At the end of 2016, container-shipping losses were $10 billion, mostly due to worldwide economic instability. Aside from feeling the pressure from the world economy, shipping companies have had to deal with cyberattacks threatening to take down their shipping networks and, along with them, the global food supply. AP Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest container ship company in the world, experienced a cyberattack in 2017, stalling ships at sea and shutting down its seventy-six port terminals. Allegedly caused by malware from Ukraine, the attack was a warning to the global food logistics industry that technology improvements need to move faster in order to protect these vulnerable networks. With all this pressure, shipping our food may not be the preferred mode of moving calories across long distances.

Estimates are that fewer shipping lines will control all cargo in the future.14 With fewer but larger ports, truck and rail networks may travel longer distances to deliver our meals. This means that the optimization of our supply chain may run into trouble when there are fewer choices for the movement of food around the globe. If only one port modernizes or has enough warehouse space, shipments of food may gravitate there and rely on railways or roads to move it across a longer distance to a destination across the country. On the other hand, if the trend toward bigger ships that need fewer, larger ports takes another turn, we may see still another shift in our food transportation network on land and sea. The model of a more distributed network of smaller ships and ports may emerge to complement the economics of scale for commodities with the consumer’s desire for local and fresh. Might we see a new network of small, even autonomous, sea and land transport vehicles that can deliver smaller shipments to more discrete locations? Ah, maybe this is where drones drop in.


One fall day during 1996, a British Airways cargo plane landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport with twenty Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs. For months, our farm had worked to locate farmers in Britain that raised this heritage pig breed and would agree to quarantine their sows and piglets for shipment to the United States. While not the normal way for food to arrive, sheep, cattle, pigs, and horses all fit into cargo planes to supply producers around the world with new stock. Those pigs landed and immediately went into the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) quarantine facilities for several months before they ever set foot on our farm.

Thankfully, our food usually arrives at its destination much faster than those pigs. Because cargo planes and related courier services can deliver food just in time, airfreight can do without expensive warehousing services and eliminate the extra handlers that might add risk to the supply chain.

But this high-speed, high-value network wasn’t always an option for sending food to cities. Aside from a 1910 shipment of silk between two cities in Ohio, air cargo’s history began with mail.15 As with many other inventions, World Wars I and II brought improvements to air technology; the Berlin Airlift in 1948 brought food and other aid to West Germans after the Soviet blockade.16 US planes landed every forty-five seconds at one point, delivering 2.4 million tons of food.17 During the 1970s, air courier services began to change the structure of door-to-door airfreight. Three individuals (Dalsey, Hillblom, and Lynn) started DHL, and Fred Smith founded FedEx.

Similar to the shipping industry, the health of the airfreight business reflects the overall health of the global economy. According to Boeing’s air cargo forecast, worldwide air cargo only grew 1.9 percent in 2015.18 In that year, the global economy grew about 2.7 percent and has continued to expand in response to the rapid growth of e-commerce.19

Today, parcel carriers commonly ship food in single shipments. Food gift boxes and frozen or cold-packed food require some sort of special handling that a parcel carrier or courier can perform. While some airlines carry both passengers and cargo, there are dozens of all-cargo airlines. BAX Global, for example, and UPS, DHL, and FedEx all have their own cargo planes. These couriers, just like all those bike couriers and food delivery services, are in the business of getting fragile, perishable food to you fast.

You pay for that speed, of course. The World Bank estimates airfreight is about fifteen times as expensive as cargo shipped on a container ship, and air cargo planes are as affected by fuel costs as any of the other carriers of our food. When fuel costs go up, so do our food costs. Generally speaking, air transport is most economical for high-value commodities. Sushi, for example, which retails at a much higher price than catfish. Other examples include Scottish salmon and Turkish cherries. But time has value, so while nobody wants to ship corn in an airplane under regular circumstances, if your Michelin chef needs it for that night’s menu, you’ve got a different story. Even with drones and blimps, airfreight will likely always be an option for high-value cargo that requires high-speed delivery over long distances. Digital trackers, sensors, Big Data, and blockchain technologies are all moving into all these transport carriers. Sentry 400 Flightsafe is just one of the products that traces the temperature, location, and movement throughout the air-freighted food system.20

Intermodal Networks

Our cities and ports are connecting points for all food transport vehicles, and most of our food arrives on our plates through a combination of at least two of these transport modes. Intermodal transport, as it’s called, is the interconnected network that handles food and carrier vehicles in their many forms.21 These networks are an obvious, physical connection point between farms, markets, and plates. Our food frequently travels throughout the world using a combination of transportation networks, and it moves from mode to mode in shipping containers.

Driverless by design, shipping containers, developed by Malcom McLean during the 1950s and 1960s, transformed how food moved on ships, trucks, and railroads. Shipping containers transport 70 percent of what we eat every year, and they account for over half of all seaborne cargo.22 There are about 20 million shipping containers in the world, and about 6 million of them are riding around on cargo ships.23 Not all of these are filled with food, since the containers required for shipping perishables are specialized and costly.

Approximately 5,000 container ships are in the water taking our stuff around the world, and now a container ship can carry over 21,000 TEUs. (TEUs are “twenty-foot equivalent units,” and you’d need a train forty-four miles long to transport just 12,000 of them.24) Shipping containers comply with numerous international safety standards and specifications so they can move on and off ships, trucks, and railcars. They have to withstand shipping slings, hooks, and forklifts, not to mention the weight of other containers stacked on top of them. Above decks, containers live in stacks of four, and below decks, stacks of nine lock into a system of metal guides, tie downs, and stack holders so the loads won’t slop back and forth, potentially knocking a ship off balance.25 Lightweight containers go on the top, with heavy ones on the bottom. The internal capacity of each is a little over one thousand cubic feet, and forklift “pockets” give operators slots for lifting the containers.

The idea of loading food into a box for storage and shipping purposes appeared during the late nineteenth century in Europe, where railway companies searched for a way to eliminate the time and labor costs of loading and unloading railcars. Breakbulk cargo, the practice of shipping items individually, sack by sack, or barrel by barrel, was the common method of transporting food at the time. Putting a group of items together in a box saved time, as it meant only the box had to be moved. In the United States, railroads began using steel containers that sat on railcars during the 1920s. Trucks had become the new threat to railways, and containers promised more freight at lower costs. Now trains, trucks, and ships carry shipping containers.

The general supply and location of shipping containers matters when considering the cost and time it takes to move food from one port to another. Containers, like ships, have their own supply and demand dynamic that influences freight rates and timing. In the case of soybeans, changes in market demand can place pressure on the location of containers. During the last few years, increasing demand in the United States for products from Asia led to the decision by shippers to transport soybeans in ships destined for Asia from Latin American ports to the United States. The ships are then sent on to Asia so they can return full of Asian products for the US market. This eliminates the “backhaul” of empty containers that shippers try to avoid. The reefer and container shortage appears in other forms, too, such as the increase in offloading of reefer containers to trucks that can distribute perishables to more locations than railways. This development puts even more pressure on the trucking industry.

Today, the containers are getting smarter and trackable. Shippers can control temperature and humidity levels so fruits and vegetables can be stored in optimal conditions to prevent spoilage (a dry cargo container withstands temperatures from –40 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit),26 and US customs officers use x-ray scanners to see the contents of containers, eliminating the need to break the seals and to expose the contents to contamination.

Coffee storage is particularly risky because of the probability of condensation inside a container. Imagine a precious cargo of coffee beans underneath a steady flow of water droplets from the ceiling. Since coffee is grown in tropical climates, the humidity at the shipping ports is usually greater than at the receiving ports, creating a dew point differential that causes condensation within the container. Coffee containers use a dry bulk liner that protects the beans from some of the moisture absorption created by condensation. The liners attach to the interior walls of the container before the beans are blown in.27

Food scientists and geneticists design raw materials for life in shipping containers, rather than designing the containers for the materials. “Cargo rice,” as the logistics people call it, is a blend of white rice and paddy rice, which is simply rice that is unprocessed and still covered by “glumes” (the leaves that cover each grain, not the hulls themselves). This blend provides stability for the rice because, as the paddy rice expands, it sheds its glumes and creates interstitial spaces that allow the grains to breathe instead of glomming onto each other, rotting the rice. Under dry conditions, rice keeps for up to a year, but if one of those containers springs even a tiny leak, its contents won’t make it beyond twenty days.

It may come as a surprise to some food producers that shipping containers actually have cryptoclimates (similar to microclimates) inside.28 Shippers have dealt with temperature control in the past by using ice, salt, and different types of packing material for insulation. And the growth of organic produce has only added to the need to get perishables into cold storage as an alternative to additives for extending shelf life.

The outside and inside temperatures of a container are constantly battling it out. A container may pass through multiple climates during a journey and must compensate by modulating internal temperatures as a result. Not only does the location make a difference, such as the arctic and the tropics, but the time of day and the season also influence the external temperatures.

But the containers are designed to win that battle. The broad surfaces of the steel box help radiate and maintain the temperature. Each surface of the box reacts to the outside climate in different ways: rain dumping cool water on the top or strong winds circulating underneath a box impacts its internal temperatures. Even the color of a container can impact the effects of external conditions.29

Some containers, called “Porthole” containers, can maintain cool temperatures because the walls are insulated, and the container is sometimes precooled before shipping. However, the contents’ respiration can contribute to a general warming inside the container. These containers are also at risk of condensation since they rely on natural control of that pesky dew point.

If a container is stuck outside a transport vehicle without power, clip-on generators can save the day—and the shipment. Most shippers require that food cargo be cooled before loading onto a transport vehicle, car, or ship, which makes sense since it would do no one any good for a shipment of strawberries to endure repeated heating and cooling throughout transit.

Of course, refrigerating a shipping container causes an increase in technology and cost. Reefers maintain a constant weather type for the duration of any shipment, even when the outdoor or ambient temperature is as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit. To do so requires insulated walls, temperature monitoring systems, and the storage and use of refrigerants. Fans, air exchangers, sensors, and motors all work together to keep temperatures in the range required for specific perishables. And all this consumes energy and releases carbon dioxide.

The food transport business is looking for ways to keep the cost of cooling containers low. For example, Sainsbury’s (UK) began using a new refrigeration unit that uses carbon dioxide as the refrigerant.30 The new technology, developed by Carrier, has been testing the boxes with the NaturaLine cooling system, designed for marine and ocean use, since 2010.31 Expect more of these innovations as logistics and transport companies find ways to limit emissions and use renewable energy sources.

New developments in port logistics enable transport between ships and road networks to save fuel costs. BNSF has facilities in Los Angeles and Long Beach where efforts are underway to create a link between ships and short-haul railways that could replace trucks.32 All of this is directed toward lowering costs and carbon emissions while shortening the distance between ports and consumers. This is another link that will use AVs and robots.

Ports are constantly jockeying for freight and shipping traffic. Shippers look at the port’s facilities, existing traffic and congestion, the condition of the bottom (available draft), and the port’s relationship to intermodal traffic and highway infrastructure. In addition, state regulations, security, land costs, terms of leasing, and labor conditions are all big deals when selecting a port. All of this has to come together for a company to choose a port of call. And these considerations weigh in when it comes to finding the shortest, fastest route for perishable food to reach inland consumers.

Intermodal food transport will continue to grow and become more technically sophisticated as it integrates trucks, ships, and planes. Opportunities for innovation abound: one snag, in one country, will impact the other modes and their networks. A traffic jam delays delivery of lettuce from the producer to the warehouse, missing the trucker who is taking the produce to the port, then the cargo-loading window. Global infrastructures and smarter algorithms will increase the adaptive nature of the future global intermodal system.

An example of how this intermodal system operates is at the port of Houston, Texas. Towers of pallets form walls around the port of Houston, which ships the most foreign tonnage of any US port. The port is really a collection of sites, known more generally as a terminal, that include channels and shipping-related companies near Houston and around Galveston. Cars, oil, and other manufactured items pass through the port, but so does food.

Port Houston serves the Southeast along with two smaller ports down the road: Freeport and Galveston. It makes sense, then, that the Houston-Galveston area is also a major rail hub, with five rail freight yards. Combine this with 422 miles of interstate and other highways, plus 755 miles of other principal arterial roads, plus three airports in the Greater Houston area, and you have the perfect intermodal transport hub . . . for now. Of course, the share of each form of transport isn’t equal—in 2003, the lion’s share of transport into and out of Houston was trucking, which accounted for 49 percent of all freight. At the other end of the spectrum, airfreight was just 1 percent. Considering these figures though, we need to keep in mind that food only comprises a very small proportion of the commodities that pass through Houston—or any port, for that matter. Above all, Houston has the second largest petrochemical complex in the world, importing and exporting more petroleum than any other port.33

The intermodal nature of transport through Houston has been made possible through geographic location, associated infrastructure, and innovations in food shipping and storage. Gulf Winds, a Houston-based organization that stores and distributes food items, such as olives for Subway and pickles for McDonald’s, stores and distributes seventy-five to one hundred truckloads of foodstuffs each week. Companies like Pacer own double-stacking containers that run across the United States through San Antonio to Houston.

Ports like Houston are called “load centers,” and they have become entry points for food from international sources in surprising ways. A website called displays distances and rates for port-to-port container shipping; should you have some coffee beans you’d like to send from Japan to Texas, for example: to Alameda, 8900 kilometers, 13 days 9 hours; to Houston, 17,471 kilometers, 27 days, 3 hours, through the Panama Canal. Of course, it would seem to make sense to ship the beans to Houston, where they’d be just a stone’s throw away from their destination. But Alameda might be a more economic choice if it costs less to truck the shipment to its destination than for it to travel that much farther by ship.

These tectonic shifts in the intermodal network cause concern for both food producers and shippers as increased demand for fresh food puts pressure on refrigerated, cold chain-dependent traffic. The combination of shipping industry consolidation and increasing demand for cold-chain capacity, including those smart shipping containers, creates challenges for the future of intermodal freight.

China is actively increasing its food production capacity both at home and globally, building its new Silk Road, which is called One Belt/One Road (OBOR) and is one of the world’s largest transportation infrastructure improvements.34 The project is a combined intermodal system that will integrate rail, truck, and shipping routes between Asia and Europe. The networks will be able to speed food trade between those two regions while integrating outlying countries such as Kazakhstan. One of the proposed innovations is the use of digital ledgers such as blockchain that will enable faster transit across borders and greater transparency, so we can stop those who now send illicit honey from China to the rest of the world.

The future of intermodal transport will include food shipment modes we haven’t developed yet, such as drones. When Amazon became a player in food delivery in 2007 with Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service, the company that had started as a virtual bookstore became a digital distribution hub for perishables. Now, Amazon Fresh is part of Amazon Prime, integrating its perishable cargo with all the other things it delivers.

At the end of 2016, Amazon had ninety facilities built in clusters near gateway ports alongside other logistics companies. But unlike UPS and FedEx, some of Amazon’s facilities are airborne. By 2016, Amazon pulled up its roots from the land-based distribution centers to think about shipping centers in the sky.

Amazon employees Paul William Berg, Scott Isaacs, and Kelsey Lynn Blodgett filed US Patent 9,305,280 in 2014, and it was approved April 5, 2016. Amazon revealed the patent, which claims orders can be delivered from an aerial fulfillment center (AFC). Within the AFC is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), really a drone, that will retrieve the item and deliver it to a customer in nearby city. After delivery, the UAV hustles to a “shuttle replenishment location” that takes it back to its mother station, the AFC. Did you follow that?

The same month Amazon announced its blimp warehouse patent, it also tested its first drone delivery (albeit from a warehouse on the ground), delivering an Amazon Fire TV Stick (a streaming media player) and a bag of popcorn in Cambridge, England, using Amazon Prime Air. This drone-based delivery plan will change up the Last Mile in unimagined ways. The online giant is conducting drone tests in countries with less stringent regulations than the US Federal Aviation Administration. These regulations restrict airspace and cargo weight, but they are bound to evolve over the next few years.

But back to the airborne distribution centers: an AFC includes a blimp that hangs well above commercial air traffic at around 45,000 feet. The replenishment center also includes a blimp that flies to and from the AFC. We really don’t know if the aircraft is a traditional blimp, but the patent suggests that it might be. There are all kinds of blimps, and several types of gases keep them in the air, such as hydrogen or helium like the gas in birthday balloons.

The UAVs—the drones—can send any number of items to and from the ground, including fuel and humans. Hopefully not together. So the UAV travels from the AFC to the customer, then up to the replenishment center and back to the AFC. Unlike a ground-based warehouse, this hovering distribution center can move, dodging a menacing thunderstorm or hurricane. It can also move closer to areas of concentrated or anticipated consumer demand. The placement of distribution centers in a food supply chain network is as critical as the placement of a hub or router in a computer network.

Say you live in a city that has been chosen to host the next Olympics. Amazon’s distribution center could hover closer to your city as the Games approach to distribute goods that support the surge in pizza orders. The blimps could deliver your order in a heated drone compartment, avoiding traffic and parking problems near the stadium. And, of course, blimps as aerial billboards are familiar sights for sports fans who see beer or Coke ads during all nine innings of a baseball game. Conceivably, a blimp-born warehouse may display an audible advertisement to announce its arrival, just like the neighborhood ice cream truck. You hear about new flavors and order from your mobile phone, then the UAV appears from the sky carrying your sweet treat in a cooled container.

Using GPS and inventory managing software, the aerial distribution system will follow your ice cream along its journey and restock items as necessary. Another appealing aspect of the floating warehouse is its potential to cut down on greenhouse gas emission and use less energy, both concerns for food transportation. Forget delivery in an hour; the patent suggests you may get your cookie dough in ten minutes. Meals could even be prepared within the AFC and delivered directly from on high, heated or cooled within the UAV.

However it works out, Amazon and other companies such as Google and IBM, are raising the bar for food logistics in a way that may enable faster, more precise delivery that consolidates all the human carriers of your ice cream and solves the ever-growing traffic congestion issues of last-mile delivery (but more on that in the next chapter).

David King, from Oxford University, suggested in 2010 that blimps would play a major role in international trade.35 But, really, they’re nothing new. The Hindenberg, filled with highly flammable hydrogen because helium was being rationed during the war, exploded over an airfield in New Jersey in 1937, just after the passengers finished a meal of British roast beef. In that era, food only traveled with the blimp to feed passengers. Imagine roasting beef below a large tank of flammable gas.

Blimps, with their potential for flight and freight, have been hovering in our imaginations for decades. A writer for Boy’s Life in 1987 wrote an article entitled “Will the Blimp Make a Comeback?,” suggesting that blimps would, indeed, deliver food someday.36 It looks like that writer may have been onto something. The safety of both the food and the humans has a long way to go so we don’t risk a catastrophe similar to the Hindenberg incident. But whether drones are tethered to blimps or landing in your backyard, the whole idea of intermodal transport is fundamental to the successful movement of food around the globe. And drones, a novel Christmas stocking stuffer a just few years ago, are now at the table for logistics companies in the future. In early 2018, the Teamsters union put the rejection of drone delivery on the list of objections to the new technologies replacing humans in the transportation system. Boeing revealed a prototype cargo drone that could carry up to five hundred pounds almost twenty miles. For time-sensitive, high-value food products, that drone delivery might make sense. A case of caviar may be the next shipment to arrive on your landing pad as the champagne bottles are opened.

Governments continue to push for infrastructure improvements in order to increase safety, making capital available for investments in technologies such as robots and driverless locomotives. But unions, as in all business sectors, will be resisting the replacement of people by machines. We wonder if disruptions in our food supply will occur, instigated by unions, as companies turn to new technologies or new transportation networks. In 2018, Britons went without fried chicken as Kentucky Fried Chicken changed logistics companies in spite of warnings made by the British trade union GMB.

However it goes for AVs, we should see a turn toward a more automated, digitized, trackable food transport system. (See chapter 5 for more on tracking and tracing shipments.) Ships could deliver our bananas to ports that have automated loading and loading equipment operated by robots that load driverless trucks pulling shipping containers that will be loaded onto driverless trains. Just how far will we allow this driverless chain to go? And if we have a seamless, driverless food transport system, are we sure we can protect it from cyberattacks that would stop the flow of our food from cities?

Transport Network Friction

When logistics professionals talk about “friction” or the difficulty of moving a product from one point to another, the key friction they refer to is distance, and “linear friction” means friction that increases over distance. The longer the distance covered by a shipment, the more friction there is. Shipments to and from landlocked countries usually cost more because of the added friction getting to and from major depots or ports. These friction points are where we need to focus our entrepreneurs and technologists. When trucks drive around half empty, or when there aren’t enough locomotives to deliver seeds to farmers, or when labor strikes cause ships to pile up outside our biggest ports . . . we see the opportunity for innovation.

Rail transport of food fares better in some countries than others, depending upon a country’s political support for the railroad industry, its economic and environmental resources, and its will to maintain its rail infrastructure. Sometimes transportation networks suffer from politics. Argentina is an example of a poorly maintained rail network that had not been improved since World War II. Because political power shifted to the trucking unions, money was directed to improving the roads, not the rails, even though rail transport is more efficient than trucks for hauling bulk commodities such as Argentinian wheat. Railroads are also more efficient than trucks for hauling food commodities over long distances, since trains move continuously over the landscape and don’t have the same traffic problems.

Places that have poor roads or impassable bridges add friction as they incur higher transport costs due to delays or damage to vehicles and cargo. While in Madagascar one year, I observed main highways that were in such disrepair traffic could only pass at ten to fifteen miles per hour, doubling or tripling travel time between food depots. Many farmers simply sold their produce from the edge of their fields along the highway. Just because there’s a road doesn’t mean there’s a functional supply chain.

Trade policies, such as those already mentioned between Russia and the European Union or the blockage between the United States and Cuba, cause a distortion of the food supply chain. Farmers can’t get seed, food companies can’t sell their products, and the financial system to support those transactions is often broken. Currently, private individuals join humanitarian organizations to send food to Venezuela as the country struggles to feed a hungry and unhappy population trying to work their way out of a collapsed economy.

Outside of distance, skills and knowledge play a role in determining where our food travels on its way to our plates.37 A trained, cost-effective, specialized workforce can move food production in ways that seem illogical. The New England seafood industry illustrates how specialized skills, scale, and proximity to markets can shape the food supply chain. And it doesn’t look like the shortest route. Jared Auerbach is the founder and CEO of Red’s Best, a seafood wholesaler that operates from Boston’s Fish Pier. A relative newcomer to the seafood business, Jared founded Red’s Best in 2006 with the goal of keeping New England fishermen fully employed. To do so requires his 110 employees to work around the clock, unloading the full catch of each boat that sells to Red’s. His company processes, packs, and ships out the fish to buyers around the world.

Some of the fish goes to China for processing and then onto Japan to be sold at the world’s largest wholesale seafood market, Tsjuiki. Imagine the apparent paradox of a fisherman who catches and sells a sushi-grade Bluefin tuna to Red’s, only to see it transferred through Logan airport to Japan’s market—and then back to Boston when a sushi restaurant buys it from Japan. Thousands of miles later, the sushi-grade fish supply chain has succeeded in bringing fresh fish to the table. Auerbach chooses squid processors in Asia for their skills and the cost of labor. At one time, he attempted to find local squid processors but couldn’t match the specialized labor market in Asia.

How can that be? Specialization is one reason. Fish processors in China can process fish at lower cost than any of New England’s local processors. Squid, for example, lands in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and travels to China for processing for far less than it would cost Jared to hire three hundred squid processors in New England. China offers lower processing costs and a more refined skillset than US wholesalers can find closer to home.

Tariffs and trade wars also disrupt the flow of food. In 2018, the United States began a series of trade talks with its trading partners aimed at adjusting existing tariff agreements. While these negotiations were underway, the announcement of tariffs on US soybeans exported to China caused China to consider other sources such as Brazil. Because agricultural products require synchronization with seasonal growing seasons, just the anticipation of change can cause supply chain shifts.

Sometimes the more convoluted intermodal networks in the food supply chain find ways of straightening themselves out. For almost fifty years, perishable produce grown in South America had to be shipped to ports in the northeastern United States instead of through more southern ports such as Houston. Due to concerns over fruit flies, southern ports had played a limited role in the perishable supply chain coming from Latin America. Northern ports were thought to be immune to, or at least farther away from, the infestations that originated in the Southern Hemisphere.38

But as consumer demand for fresh produce grew, the northern ports were struggling to keep up.39 What’s more, the time it took to ship South American produce to northern ports and then back to distribution centers in the southern United States led to increased food waste. To solve the problem, the USDA, which had originally created the regulation, began a pilot program in 2013 to allow southern ports to begin accepting perishable produce from Latin America.40 The pilot program is located in Florida, where Tampa Bay partnered with CSX Transportation to develop the Green Express freight train for produce. All told, the elimination of truck transport from the Northeast to southern markets will save about $3,500 per container in fuel costs and increase profit margins for grocers.41

Another convoluted supply chain may yet get straightened out, in spite of the failed efforts so far. The United States still ships food thousands of miles to countries in need of food aid, even though food policy experts, such as those with the FAO, advocate for developing countries to develop their own food systems so they can grow their own local food supply. When there is a food emergency, it is almost always much cheaper and more effective to buy food nearby rather than take the time and expense of sourcing food in the United States and shipping it.

Charitable organizations exist for the purpose of feeding developing nations, and some countries have developed a culture of consuming imported food at the expense of developing their own local skills and resources. This is both a transportation and distribution malfunction, and it will be interesting to see who straightens out this supply chain—and how they manage it. Former US Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried, but both failed.42 Too many old ties keep this supply chain in place, but these old ties are coming undone in recent times as we see transportation, finance, and politics find new ways to operate outside traditional communities and practices. While a change in the way we send food aid around the world may seem like a win-win for sustainability, old supply chains die slowly. US farmers send food aid, and longshoremen load it onto ships for transport to Africa. You can see how these interests clash with the logic needed to improve the global food supply chain. Maybe the longshoremen and agricultural lobbies will be the next institutions to unravel.

Whether or not we see the rationale of a food supply chain, we understand that the speed and cost of transport is key in the food logistics world. Some food can saunter through the supply chain, like corn, soybean, and other commodities that slither down rivers and roll on and off container ships. Other foods need unobstructed, frictionless speed, and they often need jet engines to propel them toward our plates. Alas, to find the sweet spot is our common logistics obsession. Transportation is where all four of our ingredients merge to find the best combination of all the ways to move food, whether on roads, waterways, railways, airways, or a combination of all the networks.

One wonders what will happen when other services replace the humans that drive the Frito-Lay trucks. Will we miss the humans that now deliver our food? Will rural routes lose their connection with the world outside? With all the attention focused on the urbanization of our global landscape, who will be paying attention to the countryside? And what will be left outside cities as they become larger and include more and more rural landscapes? This emptying out of the countryside isn’t new; Victorians rushed to cities in order to escape the arduous and grimy life of farming. But as cities agglomerate, they may need reconsideration as either extensions of the metropolis or as their own ecosystems, complimentary to cities, but outside urban systems. Maybe we should consider a landscape that includes a design for the integration of both the urban and rural ecosystems as a codependent system.


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