Part 13: Seeing CO2 shortages & Covid through the lens of the function map

This blogpost is about two events two events (CO2 and Covid) which greatly affected food supplies, but originated from outside the food system itself.

Scenario A: CO2 shortages happening twice . . . 
In any complex system, tiny events can have big repercussions (sometimes called the butterfly effect).

The first time in June 2018 (1)
The story of that CO2 crisis was told in The Grocer in June 2018 — the article also went into why there was a CO2 shortage, gases manufacture and distribution being another complex system.

It first hit the news because a poultry farm in Northern Ireland couldn’t send their chickens for slaughter. CO2 is used to stun the bird before its killed, the stunning a necessary part of due regulatory process. To compound the situation, the birds are too big for market within roughly 48 hours. Who’d have thought the shortage of CO2 would have this effect? (The Grocer article explains why there was a shortage in 2018 — the circs were different in 2021.)

And lo and behold, COs is necessary for all sorts across processes in the food chain.

Including the production of carbonated drinks. Who’d have thought that?

Well, not a boss of a fizzy drinks firm. Yup, you’d have thought, though, he’d have noticed the clue in the word ‘carbonated’. Or the bubbles . . . never underestimate the propensity for the human mind to be unconscious of the utterly familiar, the everyday, even what is, to an outsider, the blindingly obvious.

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And then again in 2021 . . .
I googled to find out when this second event happened, and to update myself on its impact on the food system, notably on abattoirs. And found the BBC had just published this news: CO2 strikes deal to prevent CO2 shortages (i.e. the extension of a six-month Government subsidy to the foreign-owned only producer of CO2 in the UK).

As before, co2 shortages affects fizzy drinks, packaging and, without it, animals cannot go to slaughter.

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Scenario B: A pandemic lockdown happens
The Government had no choice but to take drastic action when Covid hit the UK. The Government (belatedly) stepped in to impose a lockdown on 23rd March 2020. This had an immediate impact across the whole food supply landscape, above and below the red line.

This action demonstrated the power of Government to radically reconfigure the food supply system. What they can do underpins the food supply system, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Government action (or inaction) affects everything.

This Government change in regulatory function immediately took half the food supplies consumed by the UK population out of reach overnight. The Government closed down all hospitality provision and much of the catering services supplies (e.g. in canteens, schools, etc, but not in hospitals). (2) (3)

Everything was affected, one way or t’other!.

In this annotation version of the function map, I’ve highlight a few of the functions affected ask yourself what other functions above the red line were affected in addition to those I’ve highlighted:

While the population scrambled to find the food they needed from the retail sector (about which, listen to the podcast extract below), storage facilities rapidly filled up, notably cold storage (i.e frozen produce). This had knock-on impacts back to primary production; the hospitality sector takes the best cuts of meat and other speciality produce from lobsters to artisan cheeses. The UK’s lack of preservation processing capacity was shown up with, for example, the pouring of so much milk, destined for our coffee shops and the like, down the drain.

Listen to this account of how lockdown affected wholesale provision, (5) and the different supply chains we have for hospitality and catering services, for small retailers and for the Big 8 — and how other changes in regulation affected what happened: (4) (5)

 The logistics and distribution function was severely curtailed due to lockdowns not just in the UK, but across the world. Long distance truck drivers, for example, usually work in pairs, one driving while the other sleeps, but not during this first lockdown. Everything slowed down, with fresh produce supplies greatly affected — with the UK at the peak of the ‘hungry months‘.

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In summary, what this blogpost and the previous one highlight, is how a single disruptive event can ripple across the whole food supply landscape.

How can  this happen?

The structure of the organisations and people within it comprise a densely connected network and networks behave differently from linear structures. (6) (7)

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(1) We first recounted this story as the second of Three scenarios & their risks to the supply system, the ninth blogpost in the series supporting our Response to the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence made in October 2019.
note: The first scenario was about the then prospect of a hard Brexit. It’s now happened, and its impact outlined in the previous blogpost, Part 12: Three more examples using the function map to ‘see’ the food supply landscape differently.

(2) The actual change in regulation to allow a lockdown in England, The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 was made by Statutory Instrument laid before Parliament on 26th March 2020.
The devolved administrations changed their regulations, all of which were scrutinised in this House of Lords Select Committee 3rd report of Session 2021-22 here: Covid-19 and the use of and scrutiny of emergency powers, published in June 2021.

(3) We monitored its impact through a series of Covid-19 commentary blogposts.

(4) This is an extract from a podcast interview of me by theatre director Nick Pitt about his production, Seeds as I was one of the advisors on it, and about which you can find out more here.

(5) The Government also put in ‘temporary’ (but still extant) lifting of other regulations regarding our food supplies as outlined in this 26th April blogpost: Covid-19 commentary: The risks inherent in loosening regulations.
See also this blogpost earlier in this series: Part 4: Safety, assurance & integrity — inspection, sampling & testing capacity & capability.

(6) Way back in 2005 when  I was subject leader for innovation at the Warwick Manufacturing Group, I wrote these words (here, bottom of page 2) about networks — and our food supply landscape/system, whatever you want to call it, is a network: (here):
Networks are not structures, but dynamic, non-linear, recursive, emergent, often (but not always) scale-free processes. They are usually highly robust, though efficiency always, but always generates fragility in a network.

(7) For my earlier thoughts on how structure and function ‘space’ can be used to better understand the food supply system, see this blogpost  written in April 2021, in which you can see an earlier version of the function map.

note: An unannotated version of the function map is on-line here.

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This blogpost is the thirteenth in the Lunar Society series; others are listed in this post: Food security: Is the UK already in crisis?

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