What are the challenges of a sustainable supply chain?
, / 2677 1

What are the challenges of a sustainable supply chain?


We were most kindly invited by the Food Ethics Council to present evidence for the
Sustainable Food Supply Chain Commission, managed by the Industry and Parliamentary Trust.

We were able to present some of the views posted on the blog over the last few weeks – thank you for those.

Here’s what we said, in full, with additionally comments / clarifications / replies to answers at the bottom.

All comments most welcome – either below or on the original document.

Twitter: #foodsupplychains

Quick note before reading: Some of the questions sought clarity about the very tech centric vision in the first part, and the call for strong regulation in the second. It’s clumsily written and doesn’t (I realise now) make the point as well as I’d like it to, so allow me to clarify now. The agricultural tech mentioned is assistive, low cost, and augments human activity – it does not displace it. The most interesting things that I wanted to emphasise were the information flows and how the tech has the potential to empower suppliers and end-customers, thus rebalancing the power balance, and turning the supply CHAIN into a supply WEB.

See below for more PrecisionAg links


Imagine it’s 15 years from now and we’re almost at 2030.

There are very nearly 100 billion devices connected to the internet. When the Dutch startup ‘Sparked’ put pregnancy sensors on cows in 2008 everyone thought it was pretty cool. But now, almost 3 decades into the 21st century, as we look over a field of newborn lambs knowing that every single one was chipped at birth – like every other farmed animal in the UK – it seems …old.

Their owner pulls out his phone (since he’s never really liked the contact lens screens and doesn’t like wearing ‘funny glasses‘) and shows you a map, displaying from above what you see in front of you.

As he clicks on one of the dots representing the ewes it flashes briefly to show the location of her children, then the screen changes to show a report on her health, medical treatments received, amount and degree of mobility, and so on. This is precision agriculture for livestock: each gets exactly, and only, the treatment it needs, and welfare is – whilst not completely assured – then very strictly monitored. And in this volume it costs pennies.

Naturally, after the government regulation on transparent food supply chains in 2015 and with DEFRA taking a strong lead on the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition consortium, all this data is available in near real-time – individually DNA barcoded – on data.gov.uk since 2019.

And now that DNA testing is available to anyone who wants it in a £30 unit which connects to your phone (and is increasingly being built into fridges as a food safety and meal planning service, integrating with the open ‘smart house‘ standard), supply chain fraud hasn’t been a significant issue for almost a decade – even in fish….  although paternity suits are going through the roof.

As you walk over to the neighbours field he tells you about the apple trees he planted. He sells them to his neighbour who’s a smallholder producing year round fruit and veg for a dozen of so restaurants in the city. He was originally going to put in cheap replacement field shelters, but when the local water authority started paying landowners to plant trees to reduce run-off and protect soils (as recommended long before the first “Long Flood” of ‘13/’14) it became a no-brainer to do something he’d wanted to do all along. He now has over 300 across his land, acting as windbreaks, too, which is a bonus during the now stormier winters.

In the neighbour’s field – a robot about the size of a shoe box is moving slowly but inexorably between the rows of salad. Suddenly it darts out spike, skewering a slug (also on BBC 1999, & see also flies)

James, the veg grower, made it himself from plans he downloaded off the internet. It’s powered by biogas, and collects the slugs and other pests in a container. When it’s full or needs a recharge, it returns to base, resets, and heads out again. His yields have gone up 6% since he started using it, so he’s thinking of building the “CropMaster” version next winter which has a soil analyser, and jets which deliver a tailored blend of nutrients to the plant roots when the weather forecast tells it they won’t be washed away.

Precision Ag like this has been going on for decades, but now it’s distributed into swarms of cheap autonomous units, not concentrated in one large and expensive piece of machinery.

And now with artificial intelligence expected to reach that of an adult human within the next decade, he’s looking forward to the day when it can do more of his work for him. Whilst he’s pleased to have the extra time now to research genetic varieties most suited to his soil and climate, and find ways to further fine-tune his companion planting plan, he’d like to teach others what he knows and have people replicate his work out in the countryside, too.

Every day when he and his cropping team have spent the few hours picking only those leaves and produce which is at its most market ready, he snaps a photo and types in what they’ve cropped that day. All the regular orders are deducted immediately, leaving him with a small surplus which he places on the market. 20 minutes later it’s sold by auction to a cafe a few hundred metres from one of his regular stockists.

When self-driving vehicles were declared road-legal in the UK in 2013, James’s dad had invested in Uber and Hailo, hedging his bets on which would bring a completely autonomous taxi fleet to market first, and thus almost certainly capture the home delivery market.

Uber won out thanks to its relationship with Google whose self-driving vehicles had been on the road for 2 decades now, and when they launched the global courier section of the business spanning from 40 tonne lorries to the stair-climbing neighbourhood units about the size of a squat wardrobe, they won pretty much every contract going. They even had a new class of sail-powered cargo ship, developed after they acquired “B9 shipping” in 2018. Their route and fuel efficiency, coupled with lower maintenance costs and of course relatively miniscule labour bill allowed them to come in not just cheaper, but safer, and vastly more environmentally friendly. it’s no coincidence that fatal and non-fatal lung diseases have fallen almost 30% since they started – even up to 50% for children in some European cities.

They licenced the technology to the once dominant UK supermarkets, but they only did distribution. It was Amazon who actively worked to start collections, too.

Amazon’s main advantage was it’s self-awareness and market positioning. It never pretended to be a food company. It knew that it wanted to be the most efficient peer-to-peer retailer and logistics company the world had ever seen.

It 2019 after much speculation since its purchase of FoodTrade two years previously, it went international with “Amazon Fresh” – the service which would pick up from producers, combine it with international produce, staples, branded products, and household items at tens of thousands of micro-aggregation-and-distribution sites, and do same or next day delivery.

People flocked to it: it never had to overcome the long public mistrust of supermarkets, it supported and empowered local & independent business, it delivered fresher food, with less packaging, and switching  was easy since we were all doing online ordering anyway.

So, soon the lamb we saw will go out via Amazon Fresh, having been processed by a mobile abattoir service.

James and his friends at Zero Carbon Food growing hydroponically in the once disused  tunnels beneath him, sells their produce via FarmDrop. It’s a simple and effective service where rather than being powered by Amazon, it’s managed by someone nearby. Since everyone is part of a buying group, the discounts on bulks save members money, generate more local employment opportunities, and people like meeting and working with their neighbours.

Looking back, it was the small things that most people didn’t really notice happening which started the snowball rolling.

  • the progressive beer duty in 2002 which prompted all those microbreweries

  • repealing the Market Charter and changing planning law to disallow the ‘playgrounds for supermarkets’ deals with local authorities led to a market and high street renaissance

  • the Mayor or Bristol’s legal challenge to to public sector procurement rules, so he could match the city of Malmo on their target of 100% organic in all public meals by 2020.

As health insurers added obesity multipliers to policies, it became obvious that there really was no such thing as cheap food.

Food became more and more visible, more valued and appreciated as a product in a class of its own: something which, if handled correctly, could regenerate ecosystems and reverse GHG emissions, slash healthcare costs, improve performance in schools and behaviour in prisons – even in whole cities;  enrich culture and create conviviality, all the while nurturing and supporting healthy, skilled livelihoods in resilient and vibrant regional economies across the country.


Some of this may seem un-credible to you. Some of it may seem incredible. But it’s all possible, and quite a lot of it is likely. The numbers are all based on best estimates, most of the enterprises mentioned already exist, and many are known to be pursuing the paths laid out.

So.. what’s the problem? Sustainable, fair, resilient supply chains – or supply webs, really – which Tim and Fiona called for in the last session, are just a matter of time, right?

Alas, this future is a choice we haven’t yet chosen.

And we keep on not choosing it. Here we all are, a group of intelligent, passionate, wise, caring people sat in yet another commission looking at Sustainable Supply Chains.

We already KNOW what to do. We have reports a-plenty telling us how to manage sustainable agriculture, rekindle local economies, how great that would be for health and society, and yet… here we are.

The challenge, it seems, is not how to have a sustainable food system, it’s how to transition to one.

Why’s that a challenge? Because it’s a BIG vision.

It requires a long-term, joined up approach. It demands bold leadership and fine rhetoric to make some pretty grand changes.  It asks us to break down our silos and recognise that food and health and agriculture and energy are all too deeply interconnected to deal with separately.

Asking a farmer to save water so it can be used to hydraulically fracture the grounds beneath his fields to burn the gas which amplifies the storms which destroy his crops is folly.

And we citizen-consumers see that it’s folly. We look to government and shake our heads in disbelief. We look to business for help, and they give a resigned shrug and say they’re playing by the rules – they’d love to do things differently but they’d lose business if they did.

Food and agriculture is currently a market failure. Any system which so depletes the environment, public health, and leads to such market concentration simply can not be said to be serving us correctly.

But that’s ok – we know about market failures – that’s why we created Government.


Government exists to take care of all the things we know we want but somehow can’t seem to get just by acting with the enlightened self-interest of the marketplace.

We give Government the tools it needs to tax bads, incentivise goods, and regulate for fairness.

Except that right now, it’s shirking that responsibility. Business and citizens across the world are looking to their Governments to sign international agreements on climate change, reign in international trade treaties, change our methods of accounting,  and above all  introduce regulation – the creative constraints on markets which create those conditions under which the truly thrive!

Like pruning a tree, the private sector needs regulation to help it perform.

No one wants to be on a race to the bottom on price – we know it should be a race to the top on quality.

No one wants to pollute the planet, but until everyone values it there’s first mover disadvantage in spending money to protect something which your competitors are treating as free.

Similarly there’s the smaller end of the market which is just looking for tweaks to existing rules to help it flourish – just the tiniest chink of sunlight through a crack to allow it to blossom – of which the microbreweries are a great example, and there’s a world of social enterprises like my own which are keen to drive through a new class of metrics to measure impact and find matching revenue models.

So to make this commission mean anything, we have two problems we need to help you fix:

1. Helping government (or possibly business) have the courage to implement a long-term, joined up, fair, and paradigm shifting plan.


2. Making it stick for longer than two electoral cycles.


I would urge this commission to try to make itself the last of its kind.

Part of the problem seems to be that we think we have a problem, whereas in fact:

  • we have too much food – just not in the right place

  • we have an abundance of knowledge – just not appropriately distributed

  • we know what do – we’re just need to do it

In fact we have so many solutions it makes our ‘problem’ seem slightly ridiculous.

A truly sustainable and prosperous food system is, without doubt, a big and scary goal. And to some it’s a hard sell.

But is also the most audacious and awesome vision which provides cascading solutions to most of our very biggest problems.

You can to equip yourselves and empower others with the levers which make lasting change. Insist that

  • every new piece of policy accounts for its costs and benefits for its impact on food, energy, water, and health; make it have a sunset clause, and at least 100 year impact projections where relevant.

  • acknowledge that there are optimal scales for different types of business and revisit all regulation, taxes, and incentives to make them sliding scale

  • insist on open standards and harmonised metrics to allow more market fluidity, generating that race to the top not a contractual pressure to collapse and resource depletion

  • research budgets are allocated by impact potential across all the options, not just the ones which have economic market potential

People are never better than when we’re working to a great goal.

We organise ourselves into businesses, set up governments to help us, and then we go. But we do need that coherent vision.

Technology is ready. Society is ready. Business is ready. And now we need our Government to hold us all together.

Questions & Answers

I’m afraid in the all the excitement and thinking on my feet that I’ve forgotten the exact questions and who asked them, so.. from my scribbled answer notes:

  • I think GM is an excellent idea and has a strong role to play.. in energy. I’m confused to know why, if GM is so great and we know how it works, why companies don’t develop the hydrogen and oil creating algae. This could power the world from solar power, demonstrate that they are all about EMPOWERING people, not profiting from them, can learn and experiment with the biology whilst using non-pollinating non-food-system-critical life forms in contained closed-cell structures… and then, THEN when they’ve won hearts, minds, sociologists, anthropologists, and scientists over, THEN can we play with food if we find we still need to.

  • Sorry if this comes across as pro-organic or unduly partisan; I mentioned organic in relation to Malmo since that’s their target, but am personally in favour of a blended ecological intensification / agroecology approach. These make the most sense to me since it’s working with the system, and doesn’t rely of scarce external resources. My apologies if that doesn’t come across.

  • Should government regulate to protect people? Yes! It’s basically the entire point of government – we created it into existence to fix those problems we couldn’t fix ourselves; enculture, enforce, and embed  the very best traits of civilisation; and above to all protect and defend its citizens. Since I’ve spoken on tech, I’ll make this comment: it has the power to enslave us or empower us. The government should make only the necessary minimal regulation to ensure it doesn’t do the former – either as the result of malice, or economic inferiority. Make no mistake: the robot revolution IS coming and IS coming in your lifetime. That’s to say that a robot with intelligence paralleling yours and physical capabilities vastly outstripping your WILL exist before you die. Imagine what that’s going to do to the labour market. If Government doesn’t act on that, people will.

  • One way to ensure data doesn’t enslave us or distort the market in unintended ways is to measure it, but not yet act on it. These are early days in working out which metrics and KPIs we want to represent human civilisation and our relationship to each other, other species, and our planet. Let’s not rush into action, but spent time in observation. If some of those observations lead to action (eg monitoring meat supply chains finds horse and we stop buying cheap burgers) then so be it. But let’s not be hasty to try to fold these metrics into a single crude £$¥ indicator. We’ll deprive ourselves of useful currency features of we do that (cap, trade, demurrage, non-transferability, etc)

  • My point about tech is no so much the hardware as the empowering information flows: that it enables a distributed and resilient swarm of people to act with the hive mind intelligence of a single monopoly organism. We can substitute economies of scale for network efficiencies.


Podcast interview afterwards

Some notes just in case

  • Justin King 2 years in to Sainsbury’s 20×20 : “Customers want us to act for them and ask the question and take the actions they would expect,” — well DUH.

  • race to top on quality, proximity economics and nutrition weighting staying give the levers new business need innovate,

  • Pollution payments, urine capture,  grey water systems, peak phosphate and oil

  • We need to give incumbents and Exit strategy, growth model, cap auction trade, go further give metrics

  • At the moment only about 2% of the public agri-technology research budget is spent on agroecology (versus 15% on GM crops and 13% on marker assisted breeding).

  • Businesses also see sustainability as a way of engaging with their customers, and the issue of tackling waste lends itself well to this. Food waste is something consumers are increasingly conscious of and want to act on. In early November, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap) revealed that, since 2007, the UK has reduced avoidable household food waste by 21%.

  • 63 or 65 fish certifications are no more than the legal minimum

  • YouGov survey published Nov 13 found one-in-three people open to eating less meat (25% say they already are) and around 50% saying they would be willing to pay more for ‘better’ meat. The top three +ve env and health impacts are: 1) eating less meat & dairy 2) wasting less food 3) eating less, particularly foods high in fat, sugar & salt (research by the Sustainable Development Commission for Defra)

  • Today: no uniformly applied assessment methodology leading to:

    • Proliferation of competing schemes at different levels (authorities, retailers, producers)

    • Different methods assessing different impacts with different standards

    • Communication tools supported by different schemes which reduces consumer understanding and comparability

    • High diversity of food and drinks and different environmental impacts at different stages of the life-cycle

    • Health and nutrition disregarded

  • The way out of this trap is to recognize that the growth era is over, and that instead of forcing growth into uneconomic territory we must seek to maintain a steady-state economy at something approximating the optimal scale. Since we have overshot the optimal scale of the macro-economy, this will require a period of retrenchment to a reduced level, accompanied by much more equal sharing, frugality, and efficiency. Sharing means putting limits on the range of inequality that we permit; it has huge moral and social benefits, even if politically difficult. Frugality means using less resource throughput; it results in less depletion and pollution and more recycling and efficiency. Efficiency means squeezing more life-support and want-satisfaction from a given throughput by technological advance and by improvement in our ethical priorities. Economists need to replace the Keynesian-neoclassical growth synthesis with a new version of the classical stationary state.

  • DEFRA green food report

    • More joined up and collaborative supply chain is needed to improve economic outputs and environmental outcomes. These connections are bother vertical and horizontal – again emphasising that this is not a chain but a web.

    • This more coordindated approach facilitates market-focused prdoduction, more efficient use of resources, more local economic multipliers, more resilience and less risk, and a shift in emphasis to quality not quantity.


One Comment

Leave a Reply to FoodTrade Digest | The reasons why we started FoodTrade Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published.