With the second half of 2023 already predicted to bring with it more shortages, Consumers are once again finding some empty shelves in the supermarkets.

Fresh produce and eggs are top of the list when it comes to supply chain issues, with climate fluctuations and the ongoing impact of the avian flu among the reasons cited, and it’s predicted that potatoes, apples and rhubarb will also experience times of short supply before the year is out.  

But while it’s all too clear what factors have been influencing these supply chain breakdowns – the war in Ukraine, Covid, rising costs and extreme weather conditions – adapting to mitigate against them and any future shocks takes planning.  

We sat down with three experts on the subject - Professor Chris Elliott, Dr Fiona Roberts and Dr Darin Detwiler - to get their take on the current situation, what needs to be done and how businesses can fortify themselves for the future.  

Our experts on food system resilience... 

Our three experts all agree – we currently don’t have a resilient food system, with an increasing global population and unmanageably long supply chains both factors.  

“We are far too interconnected, far too distant from our sources of food, and we have far too many ingredients from far too many locations in the foods we eat today,” says Dr Detwiler.

With Dr Roberts adding, “We've lurched from one food crisis to the next in the last couple of years and supply chains are just far too extended – there’s a lack of visibility at every stage along the way. There will be some shorter supply chains that are going to be more resilient, but in the broader sense it’s just not sustainable at the moment.” 

"We are far too interconnected, far too distant from our sources of food and we have far too many ingredients from far too many locations.” 

Our experts on being proactive... 

“Resilience is not an accident,” believes Dr Detwiler. “It has to be a proactive, deliberate act that is undertaken.” Adding, “We can't just believe in it – we have to think of it as a value. It’s only when we value it, we start to look beyond cost benefit analysis.” 

Professor Elliott very much agrees about this need for proactivity. “You have to go from reactive to proactive. It's about collectively thinking about food security."

“If we’re talking safety, climate, welfare – the only answer is to look at it all from a predictive standpoint,” Dr Roberts adds. 

“You have to go from reactive to proactive. It's about collectively thinking about food security."

“Imagine being able to predict some disruptors to our resilience – so much that we can mitigate and even eliminate some of them,” concurs Dr Detwiler. “We can’t predict everything, but if we don’t try, well... We have to find that balance - to invest and prioritise being proactive.” 

Our experts on AI and its place in supply chain resilience... 

Professor Elliott has been using AI for ten years – "except a decade ago it was called machine learning," he says. "There are so many positives with AI in the area of food, not just with resilience, but also security, sustainability and reducing food waste."

“But going back to what Dr Detwiler was saying, if you can predict what is going to happen then you can mitigate against it. You don’t have those big shocks. I’m doing a lot of predictive analysis around food fraud. Trying to predict what the next big fraud will be. We can apply the same ideas to resilience.” 

Our experts on overcoming early adopter fears... 

Dr Detwiler is aware of a blocker – an industry reluctance, which must be overcome before these ideas can be applied. “I started hearing the same phrase ‘we don’t want to be the first to adopt’. That brands would opt in on when other people adopted the new tech first.” 

“Darin’s right,” says Dr Roberts, who has also noticed a similar reticence to invest in AI. “Buying into AI may look like a big spend, but ultimately it is cost saving, showing you the inefficiencies in your business. It is simply cost benefit analysis. It shows that you can make the data sets that you have work harder for you. 

But it’s easy to say businesses should be buying in. Dr Elliott talks about his own experience. “You have to convince senior management at board level that it’s wise investment. I presented to a couple of boards recently to try and convince them that they needed to invest in food fraud. They were worried when I went into the meetings, and incredibly worried when I left. They definitely realised that they needed to invest afterwards.”

To Dr Detwiler it's clear that action has to be taken. “The industry needs to stop being reactive and start investing and prioritising the issues before they happen. This transcends return on investment. It’s about having the ability to respond, to mitigate and decrease disruptions in terms of resilience.” 

"This transcends return on investment. It’s about having the ability to respond, to mitigate and decrease disruptions in terms of resilience."

Our experts on educating consumers... 

But it’s not just about convincing industry executives. It’s also about educating consumers, with the recent supermarkets shortages acting as a massive eye-opener for many shoppers. “If we look at what happened recently in the UK,” says Professor Elliott. and “It was fuelled by social media. There were lots of photos on Facebook and Twitter of empty supermarket shelves especially of fresh produce. It brought about a competitive advantage to those that were more resilient – and you could see that the market share shifted.” 

Consumers are definitely becoming more aware of the supply chain. Dr Detwiler comments, “Years back there were only three consumer questions: Is it the taste that I want? Can I afford it? And is it enough to make me happy? But today, consumers have questions about quality, safety and defence, sustainability and authenticity – we want logos to show our products have gone through rigorous certifications.” 

“So when they ask why is it more expensive – most would expect that it’s because the product is safer and more sustainable. So, then when they find out it’s not, then you end up with a trust breakdown between the company and the consumer. People are realising they can vote with their dollars – and opting to prioritise sustainability and safety.” 

So, what is the future of food system resilience? 

“I think that’s a really interesting and important question,” says Dr Roberts. “We see this tension, this conflict around approaches when we talk about food system resilience. It’s not just balancing the short and the long term, because the short and the long term don’t have to be in conflict. But there does have to be shorter-term decisions made that don’t align with longer-term commitments. No one would have predicted Covid and the way avian influenza impacted the supply chains last year. We just have to recognise that sometimes we‘ll have to take a stopgap position and then reframe our goals accordingly.” 

Professor Elliott adds, “Looking at the UK now, supermarkets are under massive pressure to not pass on rising costs. They are straining, pushing their supply chains harder and harder. The results will probably be food businesses closing and farmers going into bankruptcy. That’s because only super big businesses – the Nestles and the Unilevers - can think thirty, forty, fifty years in the future. Small businesses just don’t have the luxury. They have to deal with the here and now.” 

Dr Roberts’ thoughts return to predictive analysis. “There’s lot of discussions around data and how to use it off the back of Covid, avian influenza, swine fever and other disruptive zoonotic diseases. The World Organisation for Animal Health has just finished a very big developmental predictive mapping exercise around certain notable diseases. The idea of staying one step ahead of where the changes are likely to appear in the supply chain – that's going to become increasingly important. Especially as we are going to need at least 12 months to two years of data for seasonal impact before we can do anything meaningful.” 

This is an excerpt from our webinar on The Resilience of Food Systems. To listen to the entire discussion click on the link below.

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