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The resilience of the food system and supply chains

In the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic, it was clear that disruption to food supplies was one of the publics’ key concerns. The panic-buying and stockpiling that most of us experienced led to supermarkets and other food stores limiting the amount of the same items that could be purchased at once. However, the population artificially created these early stage shortages and the availability of food has generally not been adversely affected.

The resilience of the food system and supply chains

In a report published by the World Food Programme, it’s estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic could “almost double the number of people suffering acute hunger, pushing it to more than a quarter of a billion by the end of 2020”1 in the developing world.

However in the developed world the food system has shown resilience and there haven’t been any headlines or hysteria about food supply chains collapsing. Food supply chains are complex and involves importing produce from around the world from farmers to suppliers, distributors and consumers, but the food supply chain continues to function sound.

That being said, COVID-19 has highlighted holes in the just-in-time (JIT) supply chain delivery model that most supermarkets follow. The model is not intended to deal with a drastic change in buyer behaviour like panic buying. However, it looks as if JIT has just about passed the test of purchasing patterns during COVID-19. With the potential for future global crisis ahead of us, some experts are suggesting that supermarkets should review both the way they stock their shelves and their contingency plans.2

The food industry stands out as one of the more advanced sectors in dealing with a crisis like a pandemic, especially when it comes to controlling the consistent supply of goods. This has been possible by carrying out robust risk and planning contingency over many years, learning from mistakes and taking those opportunities to develop operations across multiple countries.

More advanced than Health Care supply chains

When you compare food industry supply chains to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a noticeable difference. Health care supply chains have been exposed to be vulnerable to a global pandemic. Various issues have had a negative impact on patients and healthcare professionals including disease control, complexity of disease management and population safety.

Fragility of medical inventory and supply chains stands out as one of the issues that could have been avoidable. A lack of health care supply chain resilience, disjointed procurement decision making, governance and disconnectedness between different countries has made a bad situation worse.

Fortunately, UK food supply chains have not been impacted in the same way. The UK and other countries have been able to learn and adapt to become more resilient due to previous key events. For example, salmonella containing eggs, BSE also known as “mad cows disease”3 affecting beef supplies and many outbreaks of foot and mouth disease on U.K farms have all meant learning to manage with disruption and adapting risk contingency plans.

There has also been unforeseen consequences where businesses have changed a supplier and been left with food shortages like when KFC switched suppliers in 2018. More recently, there have been questions about the impact of Brexit on food supply chains.

In the UK examples, disruption was to a local supply chain and part of a specific FMCG industry, so daily life and the economy continued as normal.

Long-term impacts for the food industry

The food industry has not experienced these unparalleled conditions before, and although we have strong food security, it does not mean that we aren’t going to see long lasting impacts following the pandemic.

With a significant portion of the world’s population being in lockdown, normal purchasing patterns haven’t continued as normal, which has led to new consumer behaviours. When we have come through the current situation, some are predicting that we could experience a world that feels more like the post-war era.4

Food supplies cannot be separated from how they are distributed. Even with robust and sophisticated global supply chain, the distribution of any product, including food supplies will always suffer from the last mile logistics problem. The greatest impact can be seen in cities, where people rely on external incoming supplies and now are experiencing either an unusually high round the clock demand pattern or a discontinuous, lumpy, supply operations. More rural or agricultural areas that might have normally relied on outside food supplies haven been sourcing local food produce.

Lockdown is starting to alter food choices that is resulting in food waste behaviours. Many of us are becoming more aware of the packaging waste that we produce and are becoming more health aware. However, there is also likely a large proportion of people turning to pre-prepared and takeout food, which could see a switch from the new consumer trend for fresh and healthy food and lead to post-pandemic health related side effects.

For the majority of us our food supply chains are resilient and food security is strong, which is something to be thankful for. Concentrating on local production, distribution, consumption and management of waste should keep our food resources safe for the future.

1. https://www.wfp.org/news/covid-19-will-double-number-people-facing-food-crises-unless-swift-action-taken
2. https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/supply-chain/food-security-do-we-need-to-rethink-our-just-in-time-supply-chain-post-coronavirus/604872.article
3. https://www.cdc.gov/prions/bse/index.html
4. https://www.brinknews.com/four-scenarios-for-the-post-coronavirus-economy-through-the-lens-of-post-war-recovery-economic-recovery/
5. https://www.brinknews.com/how-well-are-food-supply-chains-holding-up-in-the-developed-world/