The food supply chain

Unsurprisingly, the food supply chain is considered to be a crucial national resource. In the UK there are numerous reports into availability, affordability and resilience of the food supply, many of them under the auspices of DEFRA, the UK government department for the environment, food and rural affairs. Notable examples include the following:

Although the reports are not contemporary in 2018 (the time of writing) there is little reason to believe that there have been substantial structural changes in the food industry and supply chain since the reports were written and the majority of the contents are likely to be as relevant today as they were then. These reports are assumed to be the most authoritative of their kind given the resources available to DEFRA and lack of any obvious partisan influences that could have been brought to bear (with the exception perhaps of large-scale producer interests but these are not obviously present in the analaysis).

The 2008 discussion paper provides an overview of thinking at the time of potential threats to food security and sets out to address three key aspects, namely

The 2009 paper is an analysis of food security based on the questions raised in the 2008 discussion paper, it its own words:

"details a framework of indicators and analysis for assessing UK food security. First proposed in Defra's 2006 analytical paper on food security, and outlined in Defra's 2008 discussion paper, the indicators have developed through stakeholder engagement and have benefited from expert input from various Government departments and Defra's Council of food policy advisers."

At 115 pages long the paper covers in depth five "themes" each highlighting

  1. Global availability — Population and economic growth; Rising incomes in emerging economies; Harvest shortages; Trade protectionism; Breakdown in trade; Lack of investment; Warming and more volatile climate
  2. Global resource sustainability — Supply expansion being ultimately unsustainable because of natural resource constraints and degradation; Resources not correctly priced or lacking good governance.
  3. UK availability and access — Over-reliance on single sources of supply; Domestic supply failures; Capacity and concentration at ports; What if non-EU trade breaks down?; Could the UK feed itself in extreme circumstances in which trade broke down?
  4. UK food chain resilience — Energy intensive food chain; Does just-in-time operation reduce resilience?; Diversity of domestic supply chains; Is there sufficient continuity planning?
  5. Household food security — Can low income households afford nutritious food? Is physical access a problem?
  6. Safety and confidence — Do consumers have confidence in food industry and authorities?; Is food safety improving?; Growing role for assurance and traceability.

Clearly, it is not possible to provide a summary of all the issues raised and discussed in the paper but it is, in our opinion, a must-read for anyone seriously interested in the issues raised by the themes above. From the point of view of those interested in potential emergencies, rather than more slowly moving global trends, the most significant information will be found in themes 3 and 4 above.

In the sections below is a summary of the key points from both of those themes viewed from the perspective of potential emergency situations which could be averted or ameliorated by suitable forward planning by individuals or groups.

UK Availability and Access

The report states that around half of the food consumed in the UK is locally produced with a further half obtained by trade, of which the leading suppliers are The Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany and Ireland. The report argues that this diverse spread of supplies reduces risk of reduced availability by geographically spreading the risk of food shortages due to various causes. It does also mention a tendency of markets (in general) to be subject to political embargoes or closing down of exports by some countries in the face of shortages but takes the view that the geographic spread of UK food imports from stable neighbouring countries tends to minimise risk.

The report considers (section 3.5) the potential for the UK to support itself in extremis, i.e. a situation where almost all trade has broken down and food has to be grown within the borders of the country. In general, the answer appears to be "yes" even if all production becomes organic rather than dependent on imported fertilisers (which presumably will be unavailable also in such a scenario). The report refers to work by Mellanby and Farlie, the link to which has since disappeared (but searching for "Can Britain Feed Itself" produces further references such as[5]) and points out that this would require a drastic shift away from meat to a predominantly vegetarian diet.

The report goes on to look at ports of entry for imports and concludes that there is a diverse range of options, suggesting that the risk of a sudden shortage of imports is unlikely to be due to a single point of failure.

Overall the report provides a reasonably secure picture of food availability and does not identify any clear and present short-term or sudden risks to availability in general.

UK Food Chain Resilience

Although theme 3 of the report does not provide obvious cause for concern (indeed if anything, the suggestion that the UK could be self-sufficient in food in extremis may be a pleasant surprise to some) it does highlight concerns about the resilience of the supply chain from producer to consumer.

The UK food supply chain is wide and diverse but subject to some systemic risks which constitute individually separate points of degradation or failure.

Energy Supplies

As the report states:

"... deterioration in indicators of energy security of supply would clearly represent a warning for the food chain. DECC's [Department of Energy and Climate Change] analysis suggests that one of the most important influences on security of energy supply is the overall balance between gas and electricity demand and physical supply capacity. This represents the safety margin between likely demand and the industry's capacity to supply enough energy to meet that demand. The food chain is dependent upon gas and electricity: they are needed to process, refrigerate, prepare, package, retail and cook food."

This is a theme that will be covered elsewhere on this site, as it is clear that the food supply chain is highly dependent on power, fuel and telecommunications for its functioning.

The report quotes DECC statistics which suggest that margins of supply for both gas and electricity are adequate (8% for electricity for example) and does not flag these as a concern.

A similarly benign view is taken in the analysis of oil and gas imports, quoting DECC figures again but in this case concluding that the situation is not quite as risk free and notes that some important energy imports come from less stable parts of the world. Whilst not being alarmed by the situation the report gives these an overall rating of 'somewhat unfavourable'.

Business Continuity Planning

This topic relates to the ability of the major suppliers to continue supplying food in the face of potential disruption to their operations. A significant report by Cranfield University on behalf of DEFRA[4] is the basis for this and is again essential reading for those who have the time to look into this subject in depth.

Most of the large suppliers have plans in place for continuing to operate even if subject to power shortages, fire, floods, pandemics and similar problems, in the main part designed to protect their business more than the end consumer. The Cranfield report is also substantial in length (161 pages excluding appendices) and deserves its own comments here.

DEFRA's conclusion is to give this subject an overall 'somewhat unfavourable' rating and this is, perhaps, optimistic in face of the potential for short-term disruption though reasonable as for long-term or big-picture aspects.

The Cranfield report looks in considerable depth at the kinds of disruption that could occur in the food supply chain. It points out that overall, pressures for just-in-time delivery oblige businesses to keep stock levels to a minimum and to rely on sophisticated ordering and resupply procedures coupled with regional distribution centres and regular deliveries to keep shelves stocked. The appears to be little slack in the system and little in the way of warehousing to provide buffer stocks in case of any interruption to this process.

A number of comments in the report are worthy of highlighting. It's noted, for example, that there is a heavy dependency on electricity to run IT systems and telecommunications for re-ordering. Many suppliers would struggle or simply fail to deliver if they had to revert to hand-picking or paper-based systems. Some have their own generators to provide backup for IT but these are themselves dependent on regular supplies of fuel to keep them running. There is also mention of the fact that although they might have supplies available, they are bound by regulation in a number of areas: traceability which relies on smoothly functioning IT systems, package labelling which prevents them performing emergency substitution of ingredients or altering recipes to accommodate shortages and also health and safety in terms of warehouse lighting or hours worked if they wanted to think 'outside the box' to keep supplies going in an emergency.

They also have very limited warehousing to accommodate returned goods if supplies cannot be delivered and are returned to stock, also they have very little waste storage and are dependent on rapid removal of waste to be able to operate.

Some food production is hugely power intensive and relies on grid supplies of gas or electricity (flour milling for example) and there is little room for food stocks at the processing plants, if they can't have processed goods removed expeditiously they must stop production.

The Cranfield report mentions panic buying behaviour by the public when news of shortages becomes known (apparently petfood figures highly on the list but not sugar).

Whilst they may be able over time to adapt (and might need emergency legislation to help them do so), the various companies involved in the food chain seem vulnerable to at least the following:

It seems reasonable to assume that should any of the above occur on any scale there is likely to be significant effects on the food supply chain. Should they become long-term issues the industry will presumably find work-arounds but our view is that it's likely to be months rather than weeks before equlibrium is restored, exacerbated by panic bulk-buying by consumers once they realise that there is a problem.

Other Resilience Issues

Other issues are covered in 2009 report, including stock-holding of processed goods, stock-holding of raw cereals, diversity and profitability in the supply industry and also the state of the road network. Most of these are slow-moving and apart from stock-holding not directly relevant to emergency situations.

Overall there is only limited reserve supplies of food held in stock in the supply chain. Broadly speaking there tends to be around 10 days stock of most lines apart from unprocessed cereals which have historically tended to fluctuate around an average of 50 days, being replenished by domestic harvest and imports as appropriate.

The DEFRA report views the small stocks of manufactured food as borderline acceptable and the cereal stocks issue as adequate.


Based on the evidence available the UK does not appear to be in imminent danger of food shortages which would be anything more than an inconvenience, provided that that normal conditions apply.

The food industry is diverse, obtains food from multiple sources which are potentially replaceable if necessary and even in extreme circumstances should be able to adapt eventually to keep the population alive even if not in a state of great comfort.

Low overall stock levels and no strategic food reserves beyond normal stocks of cereal point to a situation where, should a large enough shock be delivered, it's reasonable to expect that there will be initial difficulty in meeting demand until the system has managed to reconfigure itself or the shock passes. The situation is liable to be exacerbated by panic buying when the general public hear that shortages are likely. A prudent person might consider this an indicator that personal food reserves would be called for.


  1. DEFRA analysis of UK food security, 2006
  2. UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Food Security Paper, 2008
  3. DEFRA detailed food security assessment, 2009/10
  4. Cranfield report into UK food resilience, 2006
  5. Article on UK self-sufficiency in food,