This blogpost is a summary of this series of blogposts on food system transformation:
#1: Why this blogpost series
From time to time we’re approached by academic institutions to ‘partner’ them on applications for funding. The funding system demands they do this kind of thing. A desire to involve other players in the food system is right on the mark — but the moot question is how how players can be involved as genuine partners, rather than being a tick in a box.
I set out to answer this question through writing this series of blogpost. And the requirement is urgent.
#2: Close to the planet’s carrying capacity
This blogpost outlines why the need for transformation in the food system is desperately urgent, pointing out that we’re close if not past the carrying capacity of the planet. The good news is that many people are aware of it, and many a bright mind actively engaged on what they and we can do.
#3: The economic burden
There are two other reason why we need take urgent action: The first is the economic burden of diet-related morbidities. the second is even more significant: The use of increasingly scarce natural resources of land, soils, water and energy by the global corporations who make and promote products that harm us — and the costs of their packaging.
This blogpost puts figures to these two sets of costs.
#4: A new corporate order?
This blogpost poses a thought experiment: What would a list of the world’s largest food and beverage companies look like if there were a ‘food system transformation’?
Such a change would mean a radical policy change curbing powerful global drug-food companies, which itself presents Many Big Questions without Many Answers. The good news is that these are questions about economics, i.e. matters within the power of governments.
#5: The scale needed for our five-a-day
Few grasp the scale of what’s needed for the UK population to get five-a-day; i.e. eat the nutrients necessary for a healthy, active life. Lots of big numbers, over 120bn/year in fact. And we should really eat much more than five-a-day. A mention, too, of food waste, and of the challenges presented by low profit margins from farm gate to retail, subsidies at the primary production level and gives figures about our current dependence on EU27 imports.
The blogpost contains a cheery little video giving some of these big numbers set to music.
#6: The fresh produce supply chain
This blogpost presents an animated map (again set to music, this time jazz) of a crucial part of the supply chain, from farm gate to retail outlet.
The map is complicated, yet is a highly simplified version of the complex, dynamically changing operations of the real world.
The blogpost then lists and briefly explains six points that are relevant to transforming the food system. The six points are: (1) Capital investment and profits margins, (2) A few dominant companies, (3) who owns what and when? (4) Local provenance for cities such as Birmingham? (5) New technologies and (6) The role of primary production.
#7: Loaves don’t grow on trees
This blogpost is about where we get most of our calories from; i.e. the centrality of just three cereal crops to the global food system. A bit about their history, plus the good news about humanity’s control of famine.
And, aargh, bad news about the rise of sugar as a provider of calories to populations, including some UK facts’n’stats on that matter.
#8: The geometry of the box [wee need think out of]
This blogpost begins with a Jack Cohen saying. Namely, that you ‘cannot think outside the box unless you understand the geometry of it very well indeed’. This blogposts is about six (of an uncountable number of) aspects of the ‘geometry’ of the existing UK food system.
They are (1) Population density, (2) As for Birmingham (as any city), more than 99>99% of our food is grown outside our borders, (3) Birmingham’s food security doesn’t and shouldn’t dependent on produce from the WM agricultural shires, (4) UK geography, (5) Food trade, especially of nutrient-rich produce and (6) The geometry of a part of the box called British history.
#9: The role of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)
This blogpost gives examples of an array of technologies that the UK food system already depends on: mechanised, ultra-fast harvesting, carefully controlled storage systems, nutrient capture, at scale production of light sensitive crops, robotics, additive and the impact of technologies on social change.
There are also outlines of emerging technologies: GM crops, edible insect production, novel ways to fertilise soils and deal with crop pathogens, farm-free products and vertical farming.
#10: Complex adaptive systems, networks and their dynamics
This blogpost puts forward the argument that notions of ‘systems thinking’ and the ‘circular economy’ are useful but not sufficient in thinking about the food system. We need ‘network thinking’, too.
Although an idea that’s been around for 20-30, it’s not mainstream. Yet . . . Henry Dimbleby talked of ‘networks’ in his Oxford Farming Conference speech, influenced by the work of a brilliant physicist, Alberto-Lazlo Barabasi, a world expert on network theory.
The challenge for humans — all of us that is even the best of scientists, is that our intuitions about networks is usually utterly wrong.
This blogpost ends with the axiom: we don’t describe what we see, we see what we describe. Hence, I argue, the language of complex adaptive systems (CAS) and networks, and the concepts behind them will help us understand our food system qualitatively differently, and therefore better enable us to ‘transform’ it.
#11: Covid-19 and its impact on the food supply network
This blogpost, published on 15th March begins with the words We’re facing unimaginable ‘food system transformation’ as a result of Covid-19 pandemic. What can we learn from what is happening already? It continues with some general points, its economic impact and other points specifically relevant to our food supplies.
It marked the first of a new series, our Covid-19 commentary.
note: We had another blogpost in draft as Covid-19 began, about whether or not Birmingham could be a vehicle for change. We will return to this issue when the food supply system becomes less volatile, and the fall-out from measures to control Covid-19 spread, lockdown and social distancing in particular, are better understood.
I added the reference to the new blogpost #11 on 27th May 2020.