How Secure are our Food Chains?

Blog 2: How secure are our food chains? Althea Wilkinson

I have to admit, I had scarcely given this a serious thought before the lockdown. Theoretically, yes, disruption to the food chain was something that could happen, but probably not in my lifetime?  Not in the UK? How could I have been so complacent?

I was sent a linkto an article in Nature Food, entitled “Vulnerability of the United Kingdom’s food supply chains exposed by COVID-19” (by  Philip Garnett, Bob Doherty and Tony Heron)which really got me thinking.  Did you know we import almost half our food, and 84% of our fresh fruit?  That 81% of our apples are imported from Europe, through the Straits of Dover?  I thought we grew many of our own apples in the UK?  OK, we obviously have to import oranges and bananas, but raspberries and strawberries (77% each imported)?  These figures come from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Latest Horticulture Statistics(2018)  so I guess they reflect official reality.

It turns out food supply chains are very complicated, and all different.   Not only do we have to think about where the primary food (fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts etc.) is grown, but also who picks or gathers it, and whether it  goes to feed a primary consumer which isn’t us, such as cows, sheep, chickens or pigs, or comes directly to us.  Then there is the trade aspect – which countries are involved, how likely are they to be willing to continue to export to us, and how will it be transported to the UK?  Once there, how does it get to the supermarket (never mind the vexed issue of packaging)? 

The article explains how we have become very good at supply chain technology and logistics, but the more efficient we get, and the longer and more complex the supply chain, the more vulnerable we are when things go wrong.   Phrases like ‘lean sourcing’, ‘just-in-time’ (JiT) logistics, ‘highly optimized to maximizeflow of resources through the system’and ‘reductions in the supply base’ all begin to sound more like reasons for concern rather than ideal market practices.  Failure in one part of the system can easily propagate through the chain.  Most food chains are not even linear, but are complex networks, taking input from all over the world, and loss of one input can affect the whole network.

Fresh food supplies are particularly critical because fresh food has this bad habit of “going off”.  This is where the  “Just in Time” comes in.  Apparently if I was running a supermarket and saw that I needed to restock my shelves, if I wanted to order some apples from France, salads from the Netherlands or  vegetables from Spain, for example, I have to do it through a central electronic ordering system in the morning, which then before midday gets relayed to a third party supplier in the EU.  The supplier subcontracts the labour used to harvest and pack the produce, and generally the farmers have predicted the demand accurately enough to have stocks available, somebody has to truck it across the channel and the supermarket expects delivery some time the next day.  Wow. This is just a simple linear food chain.

So thinking about it, this made it obvious to me why we started having empty shelves.  We were all living and eating at home and hence doing much more grocery shopping.  As soon as everyone buys three of everything instead of the usual one item, the shelves empty three times as fast.  The supermarkets hadn’t foreseen this, and wouldn’t have had room to keep large amounts of stores anyway – they tend to have rather small storage space compared with the selling area.  The labour forces in the source countries were under lockdown, the food didn’t get harvested, and maybe the lorry drivers were under lockdown too? Or maybe there was some reason for a holdup at the Channel?  Extra paperwork, maybe, or they had to have their temperatures taken?  Who knows?  Similar sorts of scenarios played out for all sorts of products. In fact, looked at like this, it was a miracle the supermarkets recovered as quickly as they did. Clearly some creative thinking and resourcing of the supply chains went on, and food destined for schools, restaurants and other businesses got redirected.  .  Packaging in large amounts for commercial caterers eventually got scaled down to many smaller packages for households.  Also we shifted the demand to local producers and small farmers via fruit and veg boxes.  

However, pandemics aren’t the only problem we should be thinking about.  Climate change, in particular weather extremes such as droughts, floods and storms, are already and will increasingly affect food production, both where it is grown and how much can be grown.  If we have become dependent on a small number of suppliers, political disruptions such as Brexit or civil unrest could impact both supply and prices.  If the supply countries are hit by shortages they may want to reserve supplies for their own populations.  And if we are hit by more than one of these threats at the same time, then our reliance on imports indeed becomes worrying. How secure are our food chains? The answer seems to be not very secure at all.