The Global Food Supply Chain is Already Morphing

Given the numerous and complex challenges facing its flow of operation, the global food supply chain has been able to hold up surprisingly well in these last six months of the pandemic. Two key points are vital here, however.

To begin with, it’s weakening at some key pressure points in the delivery and supply system in ways that don’t offer an easy fix. Farm workers in developing regions of the globe, where vast amounts of our food originate, have fallen victim to COVID-19 and the spread among them continues. Transport centres – docks, ports, airstrips, train and road depots – have fallen prey to giant shutdowns as prevention measures are implemented to contain the spread of the virus. Similar problems confront the regional transport centres in the Europe and North America.

And then there is the point researchers and developers have been warning about for decades: the global supply chain is massively wasteful, environmentally threatening, and guilty of poor labour practices, including poor pay. But food gets delivered fairly cheaply to our communities, prompting little thought, or challenge, to getting mass appeal for developing a more sustainable and local alternative.

COVID is now changing all of that and it’s bringing about levels of innovation and collaboration that can be revolutionary should they survive the pandemic era.

We recall the early days of the virus, where consumers hoarded what they could acquire, leaving shelves empty and the on-demand supply in serious jeopardy. While Canada fared moderately well in this area, we all remember the lines at food banks and relief centres from around the world. The strains on grocery stores and markets were enormous. Food is a necessity and essential to our survival, and because of that it places grocery employees in the crosshairs of virus spread.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such challenges only arrived with the pandemic; in reality, they were already the pressure points of a global food system that was sagging under its own inefficiencies. What COVID has done is brought these issues out into the open and caused many to seek for alternative solutions to the one-size-fits-all practice that has been blindly accepted for decades.

And as a result, practices are slowly changing. We are seeing cooler doors in grocery stores now triggered by foot pedals instead of pulled by handles, thereby limiting physical contact. The flow around some stores is looking more like a traffic grid than the hodgepodge that existed previously, making social distance easier to achieve.  “Everything is on the table for reassessment,” one Loblaws executive told us recently and it remains unsure what the future of grocery stores will entail.  How will they mitigate risk, flow people, keep their food decontaminated, insure the protection of their staffs just as much as their customers? Will they turn more readily to a pick-up model, where customers order their supplies online and then slip through grocery store parking lots to pick up their supplies without ever leaving their cars? This is already being implemented in some locations.

That’s just what’s happening within stores; what’s taking place beyond them is even more pattern-breaking. Delivery of food supplies is going through the roof, including from restaurants. Thousands are purchasing directly from farms in a pattern that avoids excessive social contact but also gets buyers all that much closer to fresh food.

This might appear temporary, but the longer it continues the more it makes sense. It’s not all just about convenience and price, but about safety, food sourcing, the pursuit of local solutions, and the desire to fight climate change along the way. Previously, food was part of a giant system of transportation and convenience; it is now morphing into something more organic, community-minded, safer, more environmentally minded, and, above all, healthier.

What we assumed would be a temporary adaptation to survive a crisis is rapidly on its way to becoming something transformative. We are all understanding more clearly that COVID won’t be our last pandemic – we have already experienced over 20 in the last three decades – and that we can’t just kept altering our lifestyles every few years to adapt in the moment. These new practices aren’t about surviving pandemics but actually stopping them, through better growing, producing, selling and consumption practices.

All this tends to point to a future of systems change. There will be huge effects on the industry and some components may not survive. Consumers will have to think more about how they go about acquiring their food. In the end, however, these changes could put a serious dent in climate change, wasted food, more conscientious citizenry, and governments that develop policies that are better than just bottom-line advantages.  In the next blog, we’ll take a look at what that might look like.

Glen Pearson

Co-Executive Director

London Food Bank

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