How can we understand the complexity of the food system?

Spaghetti Junction UK


By Tim Wilkinson

I don’t understand how the food system works. That might sound like an odd thing to say from someone working on this project. But two unconnected things have hit this home recently.

First, the plight of wholesalers who have been treated differently in terms of government support and have not been able to access the same funding as retail and hospitality. Reports of millions of pounds worth of stock being left in warehouses after school closures in January 2021, and of wholesalers staying open to supply a reduced customer base of care homes, prisons and schools while suffering severe financial losses, made me realise how little I really understand about how food moves from food wholesalers to shops. This ‘hidden’ part of the food system is clearly critical; and while I have an idea of warehouses and distribution networks, in my mind it is a Lego version of all of that.

Second, I’ve been looking at industry classifications for types of food businesses for a survey we plan to run later this year. The variety of food business is absolutely huge. We have been using Standard Industry Classifications to help identify food businesses and to structure a sample. These are categories with fun, technical titles like ‘Retail sale in non-specialised stores with food, beverages or tobacco predominating’. Based on our search terms, there were approximately 45,000 food business contacts available. The list of businesses was fascinating. It included familiar business types like butchers, green grocers and cafes and restaurants, but also ‘makers of brewing equipment’, ‘bacon curers’ and ‘chocolate fountain’ suppliers. I’ve thought a lot about how Covid has impacted food businesses over the last 9 months but quickly realised I didn’t appreciate the full range of businesses involved.

So to help me better understand the food system, I’ve been thinking about how I see it at the moment. My instinct is to look at the food system as a linear sequence of steps. If you asked me to explain the food system to a five year old, I would say something like this: plants and animals are grown by farmers (and other food producers), they are sent to food processors who clean them up and begin turning plants and animals into something you can eat, from the processor food goes to food manufacturers who combine ingredients to make a food product, it is packaged and stored, then it is sold by wholesalers, and distributed to retail and hospitality businesses who sell the stuff.

But even aside from differences in the supply chain between food sectors, the reality is far more complex. Almost to the point where I lose the sense of it being a food system that is organised in a consistent way. While I might wish to see separate stages in the supply chain (producers, processors etc.), these can be collapsed – for instance by a farmer who grows, processes, manufactures and sells a product from the farm. Even where there are definitive and separate supply chain stages, there are networks of brokers and agents, importers and exporters, technical support, consultants and manufacturers of equipment who work in between these so-called stages and blur boundaries between them. Furthermore, any linear understanding of food being passed along a chain misses the dialogue between businesses on the specification of products, branding and marketing, and regulatory frameworks that guide and assure quality and safety. I’m sure there are many other reasons why my linear view is inadequate too.

In March last year, the idea of the ‘just in time’ food system was much talked about; supermarket ordering algorithms designed to keep shelves stocked with food (and fresh food) were affected by spikes in demand and required human intervention to set them straight. It feels a little bit too easy to talk about the ‘just in time’ food system in one phrase – it gives me the sense that I understand more than I do. So over the next few weeks I want to learn more about how food moves through supply chains, in particular from manufacturer to the supermarket shelves. How do systems of warehousing, shipping, haulage and transportation really work and what differences are there between sectors? How does demand from retail translate ‘back’ along the supply chain – how much stock do manufacturers make in advance? Why aren’t supply chains as visible as farms and retail in the public eye?

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