Future System Shocks: Building resilience through buffer contingency stocks?

The impact of Covid-19 lockdown on food supplies threw a harsh spotlight on our response and preparedness for what is potentially much worse to come.

We were lucky. This time. The retail system had some stockpiles in preparation for Brexit, now all gone. And by luck, there were no other pinch point events, such as CO2 shortages or delays at Dover.

And now?
A mid-winter crash-out Brexit? Another lockdown? Extreme weather events affecting harvests here or overseas? A virulent pathogen infestation on staple crops? A non-food related series of events affecting, say, distribution?

Any or all of the above happening simultaneously?


Our latest report UK preparedness for future system shocks is, in essence a thought experiment. It puts forward a proposition for buffer contingency stocks of nutrient-dense produce as part of of the UK’s resilience to future food system shocks:

It covers:

  • The UK food system: Building resilience
  • Learning from Covid-19 unpreparedness
  • Buffer contingency stocks: How the system could work
  • What stocks to choose, what not to choose and why
  • Resourcing food system resilience: Trust, governance, economics and the value of life.


A thought experiment: Testing the proposition
We’re now running a series of virtual mini-workshops  to test the proposition, the first of which took place on 5th August, and we’re planning two more before the end of the month.

Is our proposition feasible? Our discussions so far with people with diverse professional backgrounds within the sector would indicate that it is.

  • A well-managed buffer contingency stock system would make the UK better prepared for future system shocks. 
    • And if the proposition is not feasible, what would be?


Why we did this work
Several people among the many we’ve been consulting since mid-March for our Covid-19 commentary queried whether or not the UK had stockpiles of safe, nutritious foods for crisis situations such as this pandemic. To our knowledge, it hadn’t, a situation confirmed by the experience during Covid-19 lockdown; see this blogpost about an approach to us from the MoD in early April, and this one about the millions of people without access to sufficient food).

Through further interviews, conversations and a great deal of head-scratching, the report is an answer this question:

  • Should the UK have stockpiles of safe, nutrient-dense food?
    • And if, so, how would such a stock system be set up? What would its structure be? Its governance?

note: Traditional food reserves are of calorie-dense foods. In today’s UK, unless there is a huge calamity or mix of less significant events happening simultaneously, the challenge is not in the supply of calories to the whole population, but  is about the supply of nutrients; i.e. the supply of sufficient fresh produce. (see EndNote below).


EndNote: On nutrient supplies
This explains the scale involved in stockpiling sufficient supples nutrient-dense foods, and that the UK will require a significant expansion in fresh produce preservation processing capability and capacity.

The report also contains an updated version of this short video:

This animated version of a simplified map illuminates the dynamics and the complexity of how fresh produce gets from a farm to you or me.

It is an updated version of the original, made in July 2020, in the light of the impact of Covid-19 and what’s likely to happen because of Brexit after 1st January 2021.

For more info about the supply chain, and an outline of its implications, see also this blogpost in our (pre-Covid) Food System Transformation series #6: The fresh produce supply chain.

NOTE: This video is about how food gets from a farm to a large retail outlet.
As many have noticed from the shut-down of the hospitality sector with lockdown on 23rd March 2020, there are several supply systems — and the network supplying caterers, restaurants and the like is separate from that supplying supermarkets. You may also have noticed that the supply system into corner shops is different again.


note: Revisions to this blogpost have been made in response to our continuing work in testing the proposition put forward in the Report.


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