Food security is not a thing many people in developed countries have ever had to worry about. Highly productive, integrated and specialised supply chains have delivered abundant supplies of food to consumers through increasingly concentrated retailers at cheap prices.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown of foodservice sectors in multiple countries have highlighted limitations with that supply chain model. Agriculture has become increasingly efficient, with farmers in the US nearly tripling crop production per hectare over the past seven decades. Driving increased productivity has been the uptake of technology which has also encouraged consolidation. In fact consolidation has been a feature across supply chains, meaning a handful of companies control food supplies.
Specialisation has led to two almost completely separate supply chains in many developed countries – one supporting supermarkets, while the other supplies foodservice and industrial users. When demand in the shut-down foodservice sector collapsed in the wake of COVID-19 induced lockdowns, many farmers were forced to destroy their produce and crops. At the same time grocery prices spiked in response to panic-buying, as food was unable to be funnelled from foodservice to retail.
A drive to efficiency has also resulted in farmers producing crops that are suited to long supply chains rather than the ones that provide the best nutrition. Writing about the issue in the Financial Times, Global Business columnist Rana Foroohar uses iceberg lettuce to illustrate the point, a major cash crop for US farmers for 50 years – it is mostly water with few nutrients. However, it travels well and can survive for months in long supply chains – but why waste fuel shipping it all over the country when it does so little to support consumer health?
The EU “farm to fork” strategy is an antidote to industrial scale farming. The bloc has a long history of supporting smaller, more diverse producers. In the US, Foroohar notes Democrats had started to attack “Big Food” in an effort to attract mid-western votes. In the wake of COVID-19 resiliency and localisation in agriculture is becoming a bipartisan issue.
The challenge is how to maintain affordability, anyone who has shopped at a farmers’ market knows this isn’t accessible for everyone. Would it be possible to rebuild supply chains without the focus on siloed efficiency – instead optimising nutrition, biodiversity and communities?
There is likely to be a myriad of solutions offered up by the moves toward regenerative farming, interest in hi-tech vertical farms in urban food deserts and the embrace of indigenous food crops. A more integrated systems-based approach will be needed to build a food secure future that supports health communities in a climate-challenged environment.