Brexit food shortages – as suggested by the leaked Operation Yellowhammer report – could be the best possible lesson for the British food supply chain on things to come.
The two sides of the political divide, inevitably, have made the issue look like a binary one. Some have warned of disruption at levels that would be “unprecedented” in our peacetime history: we rely on 40% of all our food from the EU or EU trade deals, meaning a lack of food to go around. Meanwhile, Michael Gove insists shortages will be very limited.
Both views miss the wider challenge. There may be some shortages of foods with a short shelf-life. Other partners outside the EU, if it comes to that, could fill some gaps in the medium term. In any case, the figures are distorted by the ‘Rotterdam effect’ whereby containers from around the world go into Rotterdam, are unloaded, registered as from the EU and then put on lorries for the UK.
Timing will also be important. An October or even January exit would be easier to manage than one in March, ahead of the main harvest and storage period for many perishables.
We shouldn’t let talk of shortages blind us to the bigger problem of what’s happened to the supply chain. Over the past 20 years, in relative stability, we’ve created a lean, just-in-time system that’s delivered all kinds of benefits in terms of choice, cost savings and reducing inventory needs.
When the course of world events remains smooth and stable it’s a smart and efficient approach. But we know unpredictability is going to become more usual, as a result of the impact of climate change on the growing, harvest and transport of food. Moreover, the recent spate of international trade disputes are an indication of a tightening in national positions that’s unlikely to soften. A vulnerable lean model needs to be replaced by a more agile one.
The question is: what’s going to be the driver for the next stage of evolution when it’s going to mean greater unpredictability, higher costs and lower margins?
Technologies have existed to support that change for a decade and more. New forms of packaging and dynamically controlled environments have made stockpiling and storage over longer periods possible for more products. Active materials can be inserted into packaging to alter respiratory gases that delay ripening. Sensors can provide early detection of defects and diseases, thereby preventing spoilage of whole batches. Another project at Cranfield that’s just coming to an end concerns new ‘modified atmosphere packaging’, which is responsive to the surrounding environment and the changing physiology of the product. An insert actively manipulates the atmospheric conditions within the pack.
We’re going to need more innovation to supplement just-in-time supplies, alongside a commitment to a resilient model. That will also involve changing attitudes among consumers who consider any food that’s not ‘fresh’ – subject to any kind of storage – lesser quality. There’s also the tension between the insistence on fresh produce and the war on plastic. Reducing plastics is a good thing, but has supply implications without new solutions. All ‘fresh’ foods have been stored in one way or another. A stored product can be as good as a freshly harvested one – it is a matter of logistics, supply chains and implemented technology. The digitisation of storage control and inventory management is now with us.
In the context of climate change, Brexit will be a blip, and supply chains will adapt, finding the ‘easiest route’. But it can also be a shake-up that encourages everyone involved across the supply chain to think again about the hard details of what will protect the future and sustainability of supply.