Covid-19 commentary: The Four Rs — Risk, Resilience, Recovery and . . . Ratios

Recovery: When to start? The answer is always now.

So, where do we start?

Which track do we take (whether individual, company, other organisation, policy-decision-maker) to eliminate or mitigate risks to the food supply system, and thereby make it  more resilient to future shocks?

This is a hugely complicated question.


I learnt the basics of how epidemics spread about 20 years ago from an outstanding teacher, Graham Medley.

He knows about complex systems or, more accurately, he knows the grave limits of anyone’s understanding about them.

At the top of his twitter feed, he has this simple statement, replicated on the gantry in the image at the top of this blogpost:

Questions should be complicated and answers simple.


RATIOS provide simple (and useful!) answers to complicated questions
The food system is hugely more complex than a pandemic. Because they’re both complex adaptive systems, they have the same characteristic features at many levels.

So it’s worth taking a leaf out of Graham Medley’s book and thinking about simple answers to the complicated question at the beginning of the blogpost about risk, resilience and recovery.

And one of the sets of simple answers belongs to the fourth R, Ratios.


A confession: I don’t know the actual Answer (note the capital letter) to any of these questions listed below. Any answer (note the lower case) will be a number. (It’d be a sheer and wonderful fluke if any of them were 42; for those of you who haven’t a clue what 42 means in this context, click on the image.)

Recovery  . . . and ratios
A discussion of what ratios would be appropriate would, I argue, be a productive means to drive policy-decisions as part of our recovery from where we are now.


Here are two examples:

    How many large companies? How many medium-sized? How many small?
    There are winners and losers in the current crisis (see section 4 of The food supply system into the second month of lockdown) and larger predatory companies are already eyeing up to take over smaller ones, especially those that are illiquid and/or insolvent.

    • I’ve heard large service providers give ball park figures of 300 large companies on their books, 3500 medium-sized companies and 350,000 small ones, roughly a ratio of 1:10:1000.
    • What is the optimal ratio within the agrifood sector, and in sub-sections of it (e.g. primary producers, packers, processors, distributors, wholesalers, retailers)
      • And what policy and fiscal inventions need to be trialled to establish an optimal ratio?
    What ratio of household food and beverage spend should be on products carrying standard-rate VAT? 

    • Pre-Covid, it was approximately 50%, so a ratio of 1:1.
      • Given the economic burden of diet-related morbidities, the ratio needs to be considerably lower than this.
      • And what policy and fiscal inventions need to be trialled to establish an optimal ratio?
    • note: If you’re unfamiliar with how VAT is an identifier of products with zero or close to zero nutritional value and their relationship to diet-related morbidities, see this blogpost supporting our Submission to the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence #15: Drug foods and their specific risks to the food supply system.


And these further examples to give you a flavour of the range of possibilities, each explained in more detail in the next blogpost here.

  • EXAMPLE 3: About trade: The ratio of UK-grown fresh produce/ imports.
  • EXAMPLE 4: About return on investment: The proportion of women of child-bearing age eating 5, 7 or 9-day (see notes 2 and 3 of this blogpost, and footnote 9 of this Briefing Note for Andy Street).
  • EXAMPLE 5: About capacity: What ratio of spare/used capacity in UK storage facilities should there be? (note: Cold storage in the UK as in the States are currently bursting at the seams with meat from the food service supply system).
  • EXAMPLE 6: About best use of agri-resources: The proportion of the UK potato crop used for making crisps (last year, PepsiCo alone used 6%; see footnote 26 here).


Here’s the full version of the image at the top of this blogpost, without Graham Medley’s fine words decorating the L-gauge ‘gantry’:

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