Contemporary food supply chains and sustainable agriculture


Oliver Maskrey is currently studying for a Masters in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Exeter. He hopes the course will give him a valuable and structured background knowledge in the subject, as well as facilitating the forming of his own opinions about the current food system, agricultural sustainability and food security issues faced on a more global scale.

The following is edited from an essay he wrote recently in response to the question “What is the relationship between the contemporary organisation of food supply chains and sustainable agriculture?”. In the essay he discusses the idea that current food supply chains and sustainable agriculture make uncomfortable bedfellows on economic, social and environmental levels. Additionally he argues that the present organisation of supply chains is fundamentally intertwined with intensive farming methods.

A number of factors are fuelling ideas in a move towards a more sustainable form of agriculture; founded on lost traditional skills, re-establishment of impaired natural resilience, highly advanced soil science, and also minimising artificial input and consequently adverse impacts on the environment and human health. In my opinion, integrated farm management (IFM) is the best farming system available to us on scale, allowing farmers to produce quality food whilst protecting the environment. The green revolution alongside post-war pressures to intensify food production directly contributed to the current organisation of the global food network.Reasons why current supply chains cannot coexist with a socio-environmentally sustainable agriculture are discussed below.

The current UK food retail system has largely co-developed with contemporary and intensive agriculture; economies of scale and favourable policy making enabling farmers to produce food at a disproportionately low price using modern chemicals and machinery. Although it is worth remembering that retailers also drive prices down to benefit customers, which affects all farmers as can be seen in recent milk prices. The ‘present food system serves best people in rich industrialised countries – 20% of humanity that uses about 80% of the world’s resources’(1). In this we can see just a hint of the scale of the externalised costs of production, imposed on the environment and the disadvantaged. When these are properly accounted for, it becomes clear that intensive farming in any form cannot be the most sustainable way of ensuring global food security.

Food security has a prominent role in any argument involving food supply chains. It ‘exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (World Food Summit, 1996). Consumer perception of food production and the incumbent food supply chain is likely to play a key role in individual food choices, however there remains a significant sense of public disempowerment; a ‘what difference can I make anyway’ attitude. Meanwhile, supermarkets and fast food restaurants can provide low cost, convenient access to calorifically rich, nutritionally empty foods as well as high levels of cheap animal protein. In schools, skills such as growing and domestic science are not taught, leading to an absence in ability to prepare wholesome food ultimately resulting in food related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. The preference for high protein diets also has the added effect of taking land used to grow food for human consumption and instead using it to grow livestock feed. In the face of global food insecurity, the ‘western’ diet, which is rapidly becoming more globally attainable, is not conducive to achieving food security. In a similar vein, tastes for tropical and out of season fruit and vegetables encourage high-energy consumption through transportation or heated greenhouses. A number of authors have calculated that global food production is already able to provide the whole human race with a sufficient diet(2,3), others arguing that this shows a lack of political will, rather than food scarcity, as a major cause of food insecurity(4).

Industrial agriculture and contemporary food supply chains have been the target of lost trust by consumers that have criticised the industry for disease outbreaks such as BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and episodes such as the horse meat scandal. Government commissioned reports following the outbreak of FMD in 2001 and the global food price scare in 2008 encouraged farmers to ‘capitalise on emerging consumer trends [such as the localism agenda] towards a more environmental and sustainable purchasing preference’(5,6). Unfortunately, it is possible the local food agenda has not to date been as successful as hoped; consumer demand for local products may be lower due to trade-offs against price and convenience(7,8).

As I’ve mentioned, the environment is an important aspect of sustainable farming systems as they utilise biological methods and give something back to the environment rather than exploiting without consideration for long-term environmental degradation. Most sustainable systems therefore have a much lower environmental cost than intensive ones, consequently costing society less in protection of environmental services(4). As an example, one study calculated a £1.13 billion per year saving to the UK economy on negative environmental effects if UK farming was completely switched to organic production(9). If only it was that simple.

I consider sustainable agriculture as trying to feed the world’s human population using local ecosystems and biology as a starting point and caring for the environment and human health at the same time. I would argue that a farming system that fits this criteria is practice that should be adopted by farmers across the whole world, united in a common goal to feed every single living person to an equal standard and ensure that the environment is protected. Present food supply chains and systems do not fit this model, they bend to the whim of consumer demand, with additional pressure imposed by supermarkets, allowing us to live in a permanent dietary. The aspiration for high animal protein diets is additionally detrimental to global food security since land for pasture employs land that could be planted with food crops to feed our growing populations. Livestock are increasingly fed soya, and other cereals, and maize crops that could also mitigate food insecurity.

Considered in parallel, the drive for national and international economic growth in agriculture, ‘westernised’ or high-protein diets, and energy intensive global food transportation are not factors that are common with sustainable agriculture. Short food supply chains, involving fewer actors between farm and plate, lower amounts of animal protein and protection of the environment would be a more appropriate food system for sustainable agriculture to be a part of. The relationship between short food supply chains and sustainable agriculture is much more synergistic and allows consumers to have a greater appreciation of the provenance of their food and a feeling of contribution to rural and local economies.


  1. Tansley, G. and Worsley, T. (1995) The food system: a guide, Earthscan, London

  2. Pinstrup-Andersen, P., Pandya-Lorch, R. and Rosegrant, M. (1999) World Food Prospects: Critical Issues for the Early Twenty-First Century. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC

  3. Tudge, C. (2011) Good food for everyone forever: a people’s takeover of the world’s food supply, Pari Publishing, Pari, Italy

  4. Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. and Walker, P. (2002) How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110: 445-456

  5. Curry, D., Browning, H., Davis, P., Ferguson, I., Hutton, D., Julius, D., Reynolds, F., Tinsley, M., Varney, D., and Wynne, G. (2002) Farming and Food: A Sustainable Future, Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, London.

  6. Baulcombe, D., Crute, I., Davies, B., Dunwell, J., Gale, M., Jones, J., Pretty, J., Sutherland, W. and Toulmin, C. (2009) Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. The Royal Society, London.

  7. Ilbery, B. and Maye, D. (2006) Retailing local food in the Scottish-English borders: A supply chain perspective. Geoforum. 37: 352-367

  8. Weatherell, C., Tregear, A. and Allinson, J. (2003) In search of the concerned consumer: UK public perceptions of food, farming and buying local. Journal of Rural Studies19: 233-244

  9. Pretty, J., Ball, A., Lang, T. and Morison, J. (2005) Farm costs and food miles: An assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket. Food Policy. 30: 1-19


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