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Food systems are complicated – they cross borders, cultures and languages. We expect them to be fully functioning regardless of climate catastrophe, political unrest or global pandemic

Food, supply chains and the effects of coronavirus –
By Dr Helen Darling

The current grip of the Covid-19 coronavirus on the world reinforces many things – one of the most significant is our reliance on other nations for trade and, specifically, the reliance on transportation systems to move manufactured goods, food and ingredients around the globe.

Work undertaken in the US, under the umbrella of food fraud research, has identified that the humble hamburger could have more than 100 ingredients. Those ingredients originated from many countries and arrived at the hamburger joint in a variety of forms.

One such ingredient, riboflavin (vitamin B2) occurs naturally in many foods and is often added to fortify a food product (it is essential for human health and is often added back into ingredients where the processing has depleted or removed it). Riboflavin is produced using microbial processes and by some of the largest names in chemical production. Those chemical giants have centralised production facilities and are dependent on safe and efficient global transportation.

Another example, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is available naturally in fruit and vegetables, and is artificially produced by the synthesis of glucose. In 2017, 95% of the world’s production of vitamin C occurred in China.

As an example of the fragility of food production, concerns have been raised that one impact of the current coronavirus outbreak could be a shortage of artificial sweeteners required for diet drinks – as a result, there is the likelihood of a shortage of some beverages. While it can be argued that diet soft drinks are not essential food items, it is an interesting example of where even the largest food producers in the world have production vulnerabilities. 

Global versus local food systems

When we think about global versus local in food systems, we tend to overlook the fact that some of our ‘local’ products rely heavily on ingredients from elsewhere. While the bulk of a food product may be local, the ingredients vital to its preservation or fortification may have travelled many miles. Often without these seemingly small and insignificant ingredients, the ‘local’ processed food may not be safe nor healthy.

Many of the drivers for the global local food movement are around knowing and supporting local growers – there is a perception too that local food is healthier. Arguably, when the local food in question is seasonal fruit and vegetables, the health claim is easy to accept. But when it is a product pieced together by ingredients from multiple countries, this cannot be assumed.

In fact, it is products that contain many ingredients that are often most at risk of food fraud, and astute food producers are mindful of factors that could see an ingredient substituted with something inferior (and/or dangerous).

A good example here could be the production of real vanilla. Only 1% of global vanilla is real or natural. Any seasonal changes to production may see real vanilla replaced with an imitation. As a producer using real vanilla, an awareness of seasonal factors in producing regions could provide advance warning of the potential for fraud.

Supply chain vulnerabilities

Food fraud and supply chain vulnerabilities are issues that keep food company executives up at night. For the consumer, the dominant concern is often sustainability or the environmental impact of production.

A recent report from Oxford University points out that food production is responsible for around one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. While eating locally is often touted as a reasonable way to reduce emissions, this fails to reflect the fact that most emissions occur during production, not transportation. For most food products, transportation accounts for less than 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, and for those food products that have the largest footprint (beef from beef herds), the transportation component is around 0.5%.

The one main exception to the transportation rule is for food products that have been air freighted. While very little food is sent by air when compared to other transportation methods, those products that are (usually fresh products with a short shelf life) have a significantly higher footprint.

A fact of life

Food systems are complicated – they cross borders, cultures and languages. We expect them to be fully functioning regardless of climate catastrophe, political unrest or global pandemic, and they are interdependent.  

Even though New Zealand is a bulk exporter, we are still reliant on international producers for key ingredients, and this means that we are not independent nor self-sufficient (unless a diet of mutton and milk is all that is required).

Reliance on other countries for products and ingredients is a fact of life, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. If we want food out of season, it is often far more efficient (from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective) to import it than to employ expensive production processes at home.  

Additionally, as climate changes alter what is grown (and when), we will likely become increasingly interdependent for both food production and on the freight and transportation systems required to safely and efficiently move it around the globe.

Helen Darling has a PhD in public health and has been working in food systems for some time; she is co-founder of FoodTruths.org, a New Zealand-based startup that is reimagining food systems for the betterment of people and planet.



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