The free buffet is over – Europe focuses on food chain resilience

By Dr. Luca Urciuoli, ZLC Adjunct Professor, and Dr. Teresa de la Cruz, ZLC Project Manager.

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There are few still alive who remember times when many European populations faced, at best, draconian food rationing, or at worst the real prospect of starvation, as in the Netherlands in 1945. The availability of affordable, varied and high quality foodstuffs, from Europe’s own producers or from global markets, has long been taken for granted. But recent events, and longer term trends, challenge this assumption.

The war in Ukraine has disrupted international flows of grain and other commodities, but it is far from the only threat. Climate change is making crop failures through flood or drought more common, novel varieties of plant and animal pathogens continue to evolve. Otherwise desirable policies, such as the wish to reduce inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and of course fuel, may affect agricultural productivity, and of course they aren’t making farmland any more – on the contrary, European agricultural land continues to be lost to urban development, under wind and solar energy farms, or to ‘rewilding’ projects as well as to coastal and other erosion. Marine resources face their own challenges, and there are threats, such as ‘digital meltdown’ that lie quite outside the food industries themselves.

Nonetheless it remains largely true that the problem is not so much the unavailability of food, but that of getting it from where it is reared or grown to where it is needed, economically and without excessive waste. It is a supply chain problem, and whilst European food chains cope remarkably well with supply disruptions, this tends to be through ad hoc reactions rather than in response to considered long term strategies.

ZLC is a partner in a newly-announced, Horizon-funded, project to create ‘An integrated approach to enhance food systems resilience, advocating for food security and uninterrupted food supply’, or SecureFood for short. The 42 month project looks to devise systems and methodologies that will lead to increased resilience and sustainability in food supply chains. To fully understand the complexities and interdependencies of food supply, SecureFood will bring together not only food and beverage producers, retailers and consumers but the ‘supporting cast’ of actors such as bulk carriers and road hauliers, as well as Ministries and other bodies that have, or should have, responsibility for co-ordinating national resilience-building measures.

The conditions around food production and supply vary immensely, by product group and geography. SecureFood will examine four particular large-scale cases in different commodity classes, led by partners in major producing countries but with participation by other nations, not least in their role as consumers. Cases include Grain, led by colleagues in the Ukraine (very timely although in fact Secure Food was in planning before the current crisis blew up). The other cases cover Fruit and Vegetables (led from Portugal); Fish and marine products (Belgium and Greece); and Milk and dairy (Greece and Finland).

The idea is use the learnings from these cases to create an ecosystem of scientific knowledge, collaborative processes and digital tools that can provide evidence-based indicators of the risks and vulnerabilities in different food chains and how to anticipate them, from which structured plans for the safeguarding of food security before and during disruptions can be devised. Such plans are likely to cover not only farming/aquaculture processes but also consideration of critical infrastructure and information systems.

ZLC will be involved in leading SecureFood’s work on risk and resilience, and developing foresight analysis – attempting to predict the future by identifying the drivers that may affect food security anything up to 20 or 30 years out, modelling supply chains with this perspective, and thus developing early warning systems to spot developing problems. There is a lot of relevant data available so the support of information systems partners will be critical. ZLC will also be leading the development of a whitepaper series  to communicate the project’s findings to governments and other audiences.

Ensuring the supply of calories alone is not a sufficient goal for food chain resilience – the food supply chains have to ensure that they are working in alignment with ‘food to fork’ objectives: sustainable healthy diets, supporting the environment and biodiversity, developing circularity and resource efficiency, encouraging innovation and empowering communities. These challenging goals shouldn’t be seen as obstacles to resilience in the food chains: on the contrary we expect to find that they are often part of the solution.

For more information please contact Dr. Teresa de la Cruz at [email protected]