National Food Strategy #10: The space between farm gate and food outlet

I’ve posted a series of images on our instagram account about the food supply chain between farm gate and food outlet, including the one of the port of Dover above. Such images are difficult to find. 

Yet arguably most of the activity, and nearly all of the financial value in the food supply system lie between the farm gate and the food outlet.

What happens in this space? Where’s the data, info, stories and images about it?

There’s not much around. Take images, as an example. You can find zillions of images on-line about farms and farming, though few of the industrial-scale processes necessary to feed the the millions within the UK, let along the 7.6 billion and rising in the rest of the world. Similarly there are images a-plenty showing food that’s plated up, the genre known for good reason as ‘food porn’.

In our view, we need to focus far more on what goes on between farm gate (wherever it may be, whatever grown there) and the food outlet (from top restaurant to school dinner, from supermarket shelf to corner shop).

It’s a complex adaptive system. Thus it’s largely opaque, not open to introspection. So we need think differently about it.


For the moment, however, let’s just turn to what we appear to understand much better, even know intimately; i.e. what happens on a farm, and what happens at t’other end of the supply chain, the consumer.

And ask ourselves what we mean when we say there is a “disconnect” between people and ‘knowing where their food comes from‘? (And it often is ‘their’, not ‘our’).

Neither you nor I know where our food comes from. No-one does.

When we ask ourselves the question about the ‘disconnect’ between people and knowing where their food comes from, what’s in our heads?

If the images and stories are anything to go by, it’s some small-scale bucolic simplicity, something like this Ladybird book On the Farm or a lego andorplaymobil set. Or, perhaps, the brilliantly enjoyable time you can spend at the  Children’s Farm at Ash End at Middleton, near Tamworth.*

Occasionally we might think of the kind of back-breaking drudgery and semi-starvation depicted in Millet’s The Gleaners.  Or the relief of that 19th century drudgery through the technology, perhaps today’s huge combine harvesters. Or the machine that picks, sorts, washes and packs spuds (this 3″ video of a Scottish potato harvest picks and sorts but doesn’t pack, unlike some combine harvesters). Or the 80K migrant workers to harvest 9M tonnes of fresh produce every year — from berries to asparagus.

But even these notions don’t appear part of the narrative in the population as a whole.

In fact, neither you nor I, nor the farmer or processor or importer or tester or food chemist or environmental health officer or agri-food insurers or commodity trader knows where the food on their plate comes from **

Similarly, none of us knows the background activity that brought the cotton T-shirt I specifically chose on-line and am wearing now. Or the antibiotic that sorted out my auntie’s bronchitis. Or the infrastructure that brings you a text message on your mobile, the lights in your home or the water from your tap (carefully kept away from your body’s food and drink consumption ‘waste’ products that you flush down the loo without a second thought).

The food network is — as those that give us T-shirts, antibiotics, mobile phone SMS, energy, water, sewage treatment —  a complex adaptive system.

As I said earlier, it’s largely opaque. Not open to introspection.

The more we ‘see’ it, however, the better, whether through maps (e.g. the simplified map in a previous blogpost), images (e.g. those on our instagram account), or the stories we tell each other.

Only then can we have a robust national food strategy, the backdrop against which our socio-political leaders can make better decisions about the food network and how, as a population, we can cope with the inevitable surprises (the risks we can’t imagine now) and challenges (the risks we’ve already identified (e.g. here, here and here) happen.


*There’s an interesting back story about Ash End Farm. A infant teacher, Peggy Webb, worked at Prince Albert Primary School in Witton in the 1970s. She lived in Middleton, next door to the farm which, in those days, was a mixed farm only. One day, she asked her neighbour if she could bring some city-dweller kids from Prince Albert to see what went on there. And the rest, as they say, is history.

** Sure, there are a tiny, tiny minority people who grow their own fruit and veg in a garden or allotment and harvest some of the food they eat — and they know exactly where it all came from, and the hard work required to get it.  And it’s not to say, either, the educative value of veg patches in schools, community gardens and the like. On these matters, see this blogpost.


Previous blogposts in this National Food Strategy series are:

#9: Three scenarios and their risks to the supply chain

#8: Supply chain permutations are endless

#7: A simplified fresh produce supply chain map

#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.


note: After we’d make our submission to the National Food Strategy, I wrote the following blogpost about the language of networks, and how it can help us better denote and understanding the opacity of complex adaptive systems, such as the food supply system.

It’s this: The language of small worlds: Useful words for entities we can ‘see’.

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