Professor of food security and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, Chris Elliott is a regular advisor to food businesses and organisations, helping them build more resilient supply chains and implement best practice for food safety.
He will be speaking at Food Ingredients Europe this year on the topic ‘Building resilience to the current global food crisis’. We caught up with him ahead of the event to find out more.
What are some of the main steps that need to be taken to make the global food system more resilient and bolstering food security?
“Recent events such as the global Covid-19 pandemic [and] the Ukraine invasion have shown some of the many vulnerabilities of the global food system. But, much more than these, our climate crisis is having massive negative impacts on the ability to grow, harvest and distribute food. A major rethink in terms of how and where our food is produced is needed, most particularly the adoption of climate smart and regenerative agricultural practices. Countries that have become extremely reliant upon importing food from distant parts need to start to think about food security and being an important part of national security.”
What does this mean for countries that have an obvious lack of natural, food-producing resources, such as the Gulf states? Should these countries be investing in technologies such as vertical farms, cell cultivation for meat production or GMO to grow crops in unfavourable conditions?
“Countries like the Gulf States, Singapore etc have plans in place to become more food secure by the application of some of the technologies you mentioned, plus others. The jury is out if these will really help to a large degree. But take the UK, which only produces 60% of food consumed. Current government policy seems to be around reducing this and making the country more reliant on food imports, which is to me a very risky policy…”
There are so many different crises that are impacting food businesses’ operations right now – inflation, logistical bottlenecks, ingredient shortages etc. How should businesses prioritise what they need to address first?
“I have advised quite a number of companies to undertake an audit of where and how they source from. The identification of single points of failure are needed and this to be able to build resilience plans around these.”
Is the risk that, with all these crises to deal with, attention to mitigating climate change will take a back seat in the short- to medium-term?
“The food industry has had to be highly reactive to dealing with the pandemic and Ukraine crisis, this is very understandable. Medium to long term planning is now required, as it is with every business in terms of developing a sustainability strategy that is robust and fit for purpose.”
According to some estimations, just four corporations control 90% of the global grain trade. Is this kind of consolidation making the global food industry more vulnerable to supply chain shocks?
“It’s clear to see why such consolidation has occurred in terms of cost benefits. However, with such a small number of companies controlling the main staples of the global diet, there must be concerns as to how countries that will struggle to compete financially with the major global economies will fare when more and more shortages occur.”
Do you feel optimistic that enough meaningful action is happening within the industry to make it more resilient in the future?
“There is a growing realisation in the food industry that many things have to change and that more innovations are needed. Science and technology will play massive roles in this process. Successful companies will be those who become early adopters, [rather than] waiting to see how [things] shape up, then try to play catch up.”