Efficiency vs. Resilience: Global Supply Chain Collapse – Part 2: Natural Systems

Successful natural systems are resilient because they can withstand or adapt to changes in their surroundings. We could look at resilience in the animal, plant, and fungus kingdoms in many ways: pigeons and rats adapting to urban life, wood ticks expanding northward as temperatures warm, or polar bears trying to adapt to a world with less ice. But to most closely parallel our own supply chain problem, let’s look at plants and animals that transport, modify, and store food, to see how they build resilience into their strategies.

At the institute, we look to natural systems for answers to sustainability questions. Organisms and ecosystems have been carrying out experiments for millions of years. In addition to running our own research studies, we also look to mimic successful natural systems, as these have stood the test of time.

In Part 1, we looked at the underlying problem with “Just in Time” (JIT) and “Just in Case” (JIC) supply. If you haven’t read that, head back a page and start there.

Bees and Their Winter Honey Supply

Scott with bees (John Hart, source).

Bees spend their summers gathering pollen and nectar, turning the latter into energy-dense honey, which they eat over the winter months, as the colony clusters together and shivers to create heat. If they run out of honey mid-winter, the hive will die. Bees in temperate climates do not rely on a JIT supply chain, as they know a predictable period of cold weather is coming. But even bees in tropical environments, where they can gather every day, collect excess honey, just in case the resources are needed. But let’s start at the bee-ginning (sorry, no more of that).

A bee colony is best thought of as a mega-organism, with each bee acting as a distributed cell of a larger creature that is obsessed with storing resources for the winter. The oldest bees are field bees and spend their days gathering nectar, pollen, resin, and water. Each bee produces about a tablespoon of honey in its life. A full colony needs about 50–100 lb of the sticky stuff to survive the winter up here — the work of thousands of bees.

Bees face many challenges, from loss of habitat and monocultures that all bloom at once to varroa mites and other diseases. Having enough honey and pollen on hand for the winter months is only one part of the survival equation, but while a hive may struggle with a disease, lack of food is a sure killer. Bees cannot depend on JIT nutrient gathering. Rain days and temperatures below 55°F keep them indoors, even in the spring, summer, and fall. A hive needs dependable calories to feed brood and keep the colony thriving.

Most healthy hives, in fact, can produce much more than the honey needed to survive the winter. Bees are certainly an example of an animal that chooses the JIC supply model — a strategy evolved over millions of years.

Potatoes and the Evolution of Tubers

Potato (source).

What we know today as potatoes started out as runner that would spread the potato plant from parent bush to offspring seedling. Over time, that underground runner — with nodes, which could sprout into stems or roots — evolved to swell and store nutrients and over generations became the bulbous tuber we all have come to enjoy.

Seeds are a self-contained plant in potentia, containing the germ and carbs to feed it. A potato is essentially the same thing, except that instead of being produced from the mixing of the DNA of two plants (which potatoes also do), they are a clone of their parent. Really, they are more like a cutting with its own food source. While some seeds need fire, frost, and/or moisture to spur germination, Potatoes have an internal clock that get them sprouting each spring. Instead of depending on just a little food from the seed and then its surroundings, compared to seeds, potatoes have a lot of growing power stored up in their tuber. Clearly potatoes are JIC plants.

Potatoes evolved in the land of El Niño, where their usually cool, dry conditions would be up-eneded with a year of hot, wet weather every two to eleven years. We’ll see how the Inca adapted to this uncertainty with adaptive, cooperative agriculture. Potatoes themselves are able to produce enough growth, even in off years, to live through their dormant period. In good years, they produce enough to spread.

Mushrooms as the Fruit of a Just-in-Time Organism

Hymenomycetes from Illustrations of British Fungi (source).

One counterpoint — an organism that uses JIT supplies — illustrates why this is maladaptive for humans and many other plants and animals. Fungi are incredible. These little chemistry factories can adapt and sense what is needed to digest their surroundings. And they can start and stop metabolizing as supplies are available. Essentially, they’re running on whatever you can throw at them, whenever it is available. The mushrooms we eat are the “fruits” so to speak, as we do not see the threadlike mycelium reaching throughout the growing medium. The mushrooms emerge as the resource is eaten up and release spores to move the organism to a fresh environment. The spoors can lie dormant for long periods.

Mushrooms essentially use JIT supplies: whatever and whenever. They thrive opportunistically. Luckily the earth has no lack of rotting organic material for them, but when it is in short supply, fungi can go dormant, only to pick right up again later. We as humans can’t do this. Even bears and other hibernating animals are only using up stored resources. Factories can’t start and stop production without losing employees and revenue. Banks can’t start and stop taking mortgage payments and still maintain their books. A house is not reinforced each winter to take the snow load only to have the supports removed again. The Amish do not alternate between mechanized and unmechanized agriculture as the season suits them. Grizzlies cannot hibernate without gorging on salmon and other fatty foods. Fungi are adaptable and widespread because they are able to use the JIT resources available to them right now (or not!) — we are not that flexible.

In part 3, we’ll look at supply chains in human history, covering the Inca, Romans, and others.

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