By Tim Wilkinson
In Sky television’s humorous political thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, while on a dinner date the protagonist Jack Ryan describes himself as being in ‘Supply Chain Logistics’. This is cover for his real job as a CIA analyst and anti-terrorist operative. It reminds me of the moment in HBO’s Sopranos, where gangster Tony Soprano answers a question about the nature of his job by saying: ‘I’m in the waste management business’. These comments are both intended as funny moments in the shows – with the joke (if we can call it that) being that a mundane sounding job title conceals something thrilling and illicit. ‘Supply Chain Logistician’ and ‘Waste Management’, are both stereotypes of jobs too banal to warrant further remark and are used to discourage further questions. But given the interest in the food supply chain and food waste over the last year, one can easily imagine a parallel universe. One in which a Supply Chain Logistician or Food Waste Manager are at a party and feel the need to pretend they have another job (a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, perhaps) – to avoid a throng of excited guests asking one hundred and one questions about how the food supply chain really works.
I have been collecting lots of diagrams of the food system and food supply chain this month. I’ve been looking at similarities and differences in how the system and supply chain are represented. Some diagrams are very simple and others are very complex. While there are often similarities, there are also lots of differences too; particularly in the categories used to express stages of the supply chain or elements of the system. It’s all pretty complicated. I’ve been thinking about why that is. Here’s a list of features of the food system that make it hard to understand:
- Scale: the food system is local, regional, national, international, global
- Multiplicity: the ‘food system’ is not really one system, but multiple semi-independent systems that interact and feedback to each other
- Inter-connectivity: there are feedback loops, connections and interactions between food supply chain stages (e.g. manufacturing, retail), but also with broader, and more diffuse social, cultural and political domains
- Specificity: the factors influencing the system are different depending on what type of food product we are talking about
Having a better understanding of why I’ve found it hard to get my head around the broader food system, I’ve been focusing on the specific food supply chain. In particular, I’ve been learning more about how the middle of the food supply chain works. One nuance I would like to highlight is the distinction between primary and secondary processing, and primary and secondary manufacturing. I found this is in Rachel Ward’s and Andy Kerridge’s 2018 report for the Global Food Security Information Architecture Scoping Project Report (ukri.org) (see Annex 2, p.10). The distinction between ‘processing’ and ‘manufacturing’ in the supply chain is common in representations of the food supply chain, but the sub-division these two processes into two stages provides a more nuanced image. I’ll use the example of a cabbage here to illustrate the distinction. Primary processing doesn’t change the cabbage, but makes it edible by washing or packaging. Secondary processing involves basic changes to the cabbage to make it into an ingredient (e.g. grating a cabbage). Primary manufacturing applies more complex processes to the cabbage, like cooking or fermentation. Secondary manufacturing is making more complex food from multiple ingredients, including cabbage (e.g. adding cabbage to a pie). I found these distinctions very useful as they sub-divide processes in the middle of the food supply chain. Better understanding of what happens to food after it has left the farm and before it is purchased by a consumer is really important.
I will write more about the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain in future bulletins. But for this month, I wanted to also highlight news on anti-food-waste apps. A Guardian article provides a summary: Millions sign up to anti-food-waste apps to share their unused produce | Environment | The Guardian. It’s often said that a third of all food is wasted and the potential for digital solutions is encouraging. I found these an interesting example of consumer to consumer exchange of food. This adds a further stage to the food supply chain beyond the initial consumer purchasing it from a retailer. Like producers selling direct to consumers, the pandemic has created new connections between parts of the supply chain. Given levels of food bank use and food poverty, anything that can be done to limit waste is valuable. I want to learn more about how these apps work, how food safety is managed and personal safety is protected during pick-ups.
As a final note, I would like to encourage any Supply Chain Logisticians, who might find themselves at a post-Covid party, to be themselves. Don’t pretend to be a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, but rather, please answer all those questions about how the food supply chain really works.