Why growing food isn’t the same as making cars

6th May 20 by Lucy Antal & Christina O'Sullivan

Our food system is not a car, but we act as if it is – if it breaks down, we can replace it with a more technologically advanced version.

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Just-in-time manufacturing, sometimes referred to as just-in-time production or the Toyota Production System, is an inventory management system. The system is designed to increase efficiency, reduce costs and waste by receiving materials only as they are required.

It’s a model that serves well for the car industry and negates the need for stockpiling parts in factories, and which has been embraced with gusto by a very different sector – the modern, corporate food retail sector. Yet here, ‘just in time’ has proven to be a house of straw when applied to the global food system. Much though supermarkets and the other hyper-large businesses of today’s food system would like us to believe it is, food is more than just a commodity. It’s time the way we produced, processed, sold and ate it reflected that.

‘Food is more than a trade commodity it is an essential of life’ Boyd-Orr

Enthusiasm for a high-tech, cost-saving ‘just in time’ model has resulted in building supermarkets with huge floor space but very little storage: food deliveries made on a constant rolling basis means maximising the profit per square metre, but it also leaves very little margin for error when that supply chain is disrupted or has an unexpected run of demand, such as we saw in the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis. Supermarket shelves may have recovered quickly, but we shouldn’t look away from the lessons those first few weeks can teach us, as many found themselves looking to new ways to access fresh and healthy food, such as buying from community-supported agriculture schemes and from suppliers to the restaurant trade. Of course, for many these solutions weren’t an option. In some areas of Liverpool where we work, families in receipt of the government’s Free School Meal vouchers programme found themselves for a few weeks without a single supermarket in their local area where they could actually spend them.

Long lead in times, setting prices and contracts for food production years in advance to reduce costs has stripped all agility and room for manoeuvre out of the corporate food supply.  Farmers are told to grow x number of cabbages for x price, and the domination of the big supermarket chains has meant that there is very little market elsewhere for the farmer to sell their produce at. To make matters worse, a recent survey showed that a third of suppliers have had products delisted by retailers since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

So there is no incentive to grow more or differently, in fact if anything the strict parameters of these contracts has led to waste as nature isn’t good at being confined by size or shape wise, meaning there is a tendency to over produce in order to ensure enough ‘perfect’ produce for the supermarket shelves. In turn, this has shaped the aesthetic dynamic and understanding of “good” food for the consumer. Too big, too small, too wonky, too pale, too dark, too weird and it gets left on the shelf.  Nature does not always grow food to cosmetic specifications and our food system is susceptible to weather and other environmental issues. Our food system is not a car, but we act as if it is – if it breaks down, we can replace it with a more technologically advanced version. We are not cars, food is more than fuel – we need to shift to a food system that recognises the true value of food.

“You are not a car…To treat our bodies like cars is to essentially treat ourselves as something disposable.” – Sonya Renee Taylor

What’s the alternative?

“We’re seeing horror stories of farmers throwing milk away and food being destroyed in fields. But the reality is that these stories are all coming out of industrial supply chains. Farmers who are part of local networks are not throwing away food; in fact, they are rushing to keep up with demand. The pandemic is exposing the big lie of industrial agriculture and its claim that this is the only way to feed the world. When one big supply chain runs everything, the entire system becomes fragile. The reality is that smaller and more diverse networks of agriculture are the most resilient.” Raj Patel

In our current framework of progress the answer often resides in the mind frame of ‘Go Big or Go Home’ what if instead we went small and community focused? What if instead of focusing on efficiency, we put food workers at the heart of the food system? These are some of the questions are exploring through our regional food economy pilot programmes – Alchemic Kitchen in Merseyside and FLAVOUR in Brighton.



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