National Food Strategy #7: A simplified fresh produce supply chain map

Getting fresh produce into UK cities, the very stuff of your dinner tonight — and that of over 66 million other people in the UK alone, involves a series of complex, dynamically changing operations. A simplified (!) version of what happens is illustrated in the map below.

It was first drawn on a flipchart by the fresh produce wholesaler and the supermarket exec at the workshop we ran last week.

You, the consumer (and your wallet) are at the end of a host of processes largely hidden from you — unless you buy directly from the farmer. Even if you do, you’ll be aware that lots of farm outlets source the produce on their shelves from outside their farm gate; see for example, this blogpost about Beckett’s Farm in Wythall, just south of Birmingham.

The Beckett’s Farm blogpost highlights another, significant factor in the food system. It’s well nigh impossible to make a living as a farmer engaged solely in primary production. It’s worth remembering, too, that the margins along the whole fresh produce supply chain are tiny, 0%-2.5% was quoted to us a couple of years ago (see Back from the future, our horizon scanning report), and we’ve heard margins have been further squeezed since then.

Remember, too, this supply chain map is a simplified version. In reality every step of the way is far more complex, and involves lots of people, hefty expensive equipment, just-in-time logistics, inspections and testing; see the next blogpost in this series Supply chain permutations are endless.

Simplified though it is, this map highlights these five points:

1. Capital investment & profit margins

  • The system requires high levels of capital investment to get a perishable primary product into the mouths of the millions in the UK, and in the face of competition from the billions overseas.
  • Every step of the way has to add value for the business carrying out the operation.
  • When margins are so tight, businesses have few options; they can leave the sector and making a living elsewhere, or diversify and/or supply a higher value niche market and/or they scale the business and/or they merge or acquire other businesses in the supply chain.
  • The requirement for capital investment, plus the slim margins, means there are high barriers to entry.

2. A few dominant companies

  • We should not be surprised, therefore by our dependence on a few dominant companies — at every level of the supply chain.
  • Nor should we be surprised by the proliferation of highly processed food and drink products, many with zero or close to zero nutritional value. An example of such products are those categorised as ‘drug foods‘.

3. Who owns what when?

  • Difficult if not impossible to know for any single product line.
  • Complicated by the fact that any particular product, a burger say, may contain many ingredients from all over the world, all subject to dynamic change in provenance and use.

4. New technologies can suddenly change the system: Two examples

  • Home deliveries had double-digit growth last year, and new players are entering the market.
    Expect the unexpected; for example, the recent requirement by Just Eat that their suppliers have compliant Food Hygiene Ratings (FHR) generated a an increase in requests for food inspection here in Birmingham, with a knock-on effect of higher FHRs in food outlets across the city.
  • There is now investment in “dark kitchens”, that is robotic production of meals. The effects this development will have on the system is as yet unknown.

5. While primary production . . .

  • Across the world, farmers scrape a living. Arguably, you can’t make a living from primary production. Hence agricultural subsidies exist in many countries.
  • But without primary production, we haven’t got a food system.

Yet despite all the above, this complex supply chain all somehow configures itself so that a wide variety of food comes efficiently, seemingly effortlessly into our cities, so anyone with enough money to pay for it can tuck into a good meal, perhaps the delicious-looking one in the image at the top of this blogpost.

It all works. Like magic.* But for how long?
* Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is the third of Arthur C Clarke’s Three Laws.


The map above is a second version created and published in this blogpost on 12th October after feedback from workshop participants. The numbers and letters on it are for reference purposes only when we/you talk about the processes involved.


Previous blogposts in this National Food Strategy series are:

#6: UK resilience to global risks to food supplies

#5: Global risks to UK food supplies

#4: The irreconcilables

#3:  The global competition for safe, nutritious food

#2: Responsibility, resilience and ethics

#1: The brief

A link to our submission is here.    A list of all the blogposts in this series is here.


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