Age of disruption

Age of disruption

China and climate change

0114 Disruption 02
By 2020 there will be about 21 million affluent households in China, representing 60 million consumers.
Source: McKinsey & Company

Amanda Oborne is having trouble sleeping at night. The director of food and farm programs at Ecotrust traces the source of her insomnia to two pending global cataclysms. The first is the roughly 3 billion middle-class Chinese consumers expected to come online in the next 15 years. “We have no concept of how much is going to change when the giant sucking sound coming out of Asia kicks into full gear,” Oborne says.

Ten years ago, China’s building boom led to massive fuel shortages worldwide; next it will be wine, meat and all the other middle-class amenities Americans take for granted. Oborne points to two major developments already reshaping global food production: This past fall, a Chinese company bought Smithfield, the biggest pork producer in the U.S., and legislation now allows companies to ship live chickens from the U.S. to China for processing and then back again. “That’s the first step in a domino effect that will lead Tyson to source chicken from China," Oborne warns. "And we should be really nervous about that because of food-safety issues.”

Climate change is the other global disturbance contributing to Oborne’s “ambient stress levels”: “I joke all the time that Portland is going to be the next San Francisco because our weather is going to be such bliss as climate change takes effect,” she says. Oborne cites a recent University of Hawaii study identifying the date select cities will become uninhabitable because they will be too hot. Doomsday for Los Angeles is 2048; Houston, 2050.

“But the reality is that climate change is not just a matter of an influx of population from California,” Oborne says. “As people get hungry or run out of water, political unrest and violence will escalate.”

From the perspective of many Oregon food processors, skyrocketing Asian demand — and, perhaps, a more propitious growing season — is a positive, Oborne acknowledges. “If you ask Nancy’s Yogurt, Stahlbush Farms — those are great producers whose markets are going to explode.” But 85% of Oregon agriculture is already exported. To protect Oregonians against a “category 5 hurricane, global trade or political meltdown,” Ecotrust aims to carve out a locally owned and "high-functioning” processing and distribution infrastructure, Oborne says. That effort moves beyond farmers markets to encompass "a regional food system strong enough to be resilient regardless of what’s coming down the pike.”

“And what’s coming down the pike is enormous.”