Food for Thought: UK Food Supply Chains and Controlled Environment Agriculture.

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This bulletin looks at UK food supply chains and how controlled environment agriculture (CEA) could help cope with supply and demand of fresh produce. 

UK supply chains. 

The procurement of goods in the UK has been under pressure across most sectors. Reasons for this stem from the adaptation to the Brexit deal and the ongoing Covid pandemic. Such pressures to procurement strategies have resulted in issues in the UK supply chains, with shortfalls in products throughout the summer of 2021. The matter has been escalated by empty supermarket shelves, fuel shortages and consumer panic buying. 

News channels have reported food being left on farms, unable to be picked up from haulage companies. The issues in the UK is down to staff shortages. According to the Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, the food supply chain in the UK is down 12.5% of the staff needed to keep the flow of produce running. 

The haulage sector is one of the key industries within the UK supply chains which is suffering from the shortage of staff. There have been shortfall estimates of up to 100,000 drivers, after the Brexit process in the UK. Many have pinpointed the blame of this shortage to drivers choosing to avoid the UK due to Brexit and Covid. 

However, elsewhere in the EU, countries have experienced similar issues. Germany and Poland have seen staff shortages which cannot be blamed on the UK leaving the EU. Mr Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, stated that Covid was the main reason for the shortfall of staffing in the UK food supply chains. With issues such as the closure of the French border in December 2020 being one of the many possible reasons at the forefront of this discussion, in terms of the impact Covid has had on supply chains. 

There needs to be a stronger working connection between the UK and the EU. However, businesses may have to start procuring produce close to home, locally, aiming to prevent food supply chains from continuing to fail to keep up with the demand of consumers. 

Supply Chains and CEA 

It is clear that food supply chains are under pressure. For most of the produce which fills the shelves in the UK supermarkets, it originates from conventional agricultural methods. However, with produce being left on farms through staff shortages in the supply chain. The current supply chain is failing.

Our farming methods and supply chains are also hurting the environment. The problems that supply chains are coming up against in recent times are escalating the agricultural and environmental issues. For instance, produce travels long distances to reach the consumer. On top of this, transportation of fresh produce saps the nutrients, before arriving at the end destination in the supply chain. Vegetables also pass through many different hands, which in the wake of the pandemic, poses a threat to the welfare of workers and consumers. 

There is a need to shorten the food supply chain. One way this could be done is through controlled environment agriculture (CEA), often referred to as vertical farming. For the most part, vertical farming has become much more popular over the recent decade throughout urban settings. Vertical farming is a process where crops are grown indoors in a controlled environment. CEA offers the opportunity for a transparent and safer food supply chain, which can also be shorter and more local to the point at which produce is consumed. This is largely down to CEA’s ability to allow farmers to grow produce all year around, with higher crop yields in urban and rural locations. With the scale-up of vertical farming, the UK’s dependence on the EU supply chains can be reduced.

Many businesses use Just In Time supply chains (Garnett, Doherty & Heron, 2020), when it comes to ordering fruit and vegetables. This is to ensure that the produce on the shelves is fresh for consumers. Just In Time supply chains are proving to be unsustainable in the current economic climate, and new horticultural methods are needed to compliment the UK food supply chains. CEA is an option which needs to be heavily invested in by businesses, growers, and farmers, to shorten food supply chains, keeping fresh produce on supermarket shelves, and making our supply chains more resilient. 

The traditional procurement methods for produce in the UK needs to change. Otherwise, there is likely to be a continued shortage in the supply chain, due to issues such as the lack of heavy goods drivers in the haulage industry. Traditional methods do not need to be eliminated from the conversation, but the integration of vertical farming can help grow more produce throughout the UK, in urban and rural areas. 

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