The food supply chain: What does it actually do?

This question is about the function of the supply chain, not its physical structure.

When people talk about the food system, they often conflate structure and function. (No surprise there, we judge and have feelings about any working structure  by its  functionality.)

As a means of ‘seeing’ through the complexity of the system, however, it’s useful to be able to separate out the two. Its structure is its physicality, its function is an abstraction, our judegment/assessment (and often, our feelings!) about what it does.

Here’s a model of the food system function space, i.e. what the system does:*

  • Notice the swathe of activities between  primary production and consumption.
  • A large part of the activity and, indeed, most of the value in the food supply system is necessarily about this, often referred to as ‘secondary production‘.
  • The value of the whole supply chain is only realised at the end; i.e. when the people pay (in some form or other) to consume what’s been produced.
    • I’ve added in sewage and water treatment at the end to complete the story; about Birmingham sewage, see here.

Under each of one these function space headings, there are a multitude of diverse entities in structure space, i.e the ordered pattern of physical elements. In this system, that’s the food itself in its various stages of preparation, plus buildings, plant, equipment, et al.

‘Mapping’ the capacity and capabilities from function to structure space, and from structure to function space,** can be illuminating; e.g.

  • The UK lacks sufficient storage, preservation and processing capacity (structure space) and capability (function space) for even short-term benefit:
    • Cold storage capacity was not sufficient during Covid;
    • Think of the shell-fish producers left high and dry owing to their reliance on EU processing capacity and capability.
    • Or farmers having to pour a huge quantity of milk down the drain (milk that could have been spray-dried as it was in other countries) when the hospitality sector closed down overnight with the March 202o lockdown.
  • See also the next blogpost: How [not] to talk about [ultra-high] processed food, about which a separation of function space and structure space could lead to better policy and law making.


Production and consumption is not the whole story . . .
The system is far more than farm to fork production and consumption charted above the red line in the infographic above.

There’s a busy function space that makes it all happen below the red line:

Again, a ‘mapping’ from function to structure space and back again, can prove a useful exercise; e.g.

  • In response to Covid, the third sector upped its game with regard to logistics in response to changes in the UK’s economic structure which led to many more households not having the money to buy sufficient supplies of safe nutritious food, a situation exacerbated by the Government not meeting its functional responsibilities, indeed explicitly stating that theirs was a ‘supportive role’.
    • For a link to their statement on the matter, and our comments on it, see section 3 of our written Submission to ehe EFRA Commons Select Committee made in January 2021. Section 3.2 explains how the Government, in not responding to early signs of food system stresses, didn’t have time to make the structural changes to respond adequately to the level of disruption that Covid wrought.


Possibility space . . .
I first met the twin concepts of structure space and function space over 20 years ago, during my time as subject leader for innovation at the Warwick Manufacturing Group. Both exist within possibility space (the space in which structures and functions could exist, but don’t yet, i.e. the very stuff of innovation.**

the space in which structures and functions could exist, but don’t yet“. That is to say, possibility space exists in our heads, not in the world.


Our heads are full of beliefs, emotions and feelings as well as knowledge and ignorance, understanding and misunderstanding.

Making the leap into a new possibility space happens when people’s beliefs, emotions and feelings about the functionality of an existing system or systems structure and/or function can be applied differently.



*The function headings are mine, albeit informed by several people deep within the food supply system. We’re unlikely to have thought of everything and, for sure, you might categorise things differently. It’s only (only!) a model, dammit, so inevitably will fall short of reality. Nonetheless, it throws a new light on what the food supply system actually does.

**An example from those WMG days 20 years ago: At this time, we’d begun to use mobile telephones for talk and SMS, but that was just about it — the first iPhone was only released in June 2007. Both the landline and a mobile provided the function of being able to talk to someone else far away.

The structure space of the two systems, however, was and is utterly separate, and radically different. The mobile telephony structure space opened up not just the functions billions of us take for granted today, but also new structures that led to yet bigger function space; e.g. using an phone app to pay for goods at the supermarket till, unthinkable to most of us 2o years ago or, post-Covid, sending a family Zoom link to so your two year old can chat and share the video she made earlier with her nan and grandad.

A hat doff to Professor Andreas Bonaccoursi of the Scuola Superiore di Sant’Anna in Pisa who introduced these concepts to myself and Warwick colleagues when we were co-designing an innovation strategy programme for an Anglo-Italian client organisation.

And finally, a big thank-you to Clive Reynolds, a former Warwick colleague, with whom I’ve been chewing the function space cud again, so helping me get my mind around this model in relation to the food supply system.

The responsibility for all of the above is, of course, mine.

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