Collaboration key to sustainable, resilient and profitable supply chains

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Senior figures from across the food supply chain met at Canada House in London
Senior figures from across the food supply chain met at Canada House in London
Senior figures from across the food supply chain have called for greater levels of collaboration as the industry looks to overcome the challenges currently facing global food systems.

Speaking during an event to celebrate 20 years of the European Food and Farming Partnerships (EFFP) – a consultancy that specialises in supply chain relationships and the strategic sourcing of raw materials – leaders from various organisations within food production expressed their desire to encourage industry-wide cooperation in a way that benefits the entire F&B sector and secures the long-term food security of the UK and the wider world.

Hosted by EFFP partners Andy Richardson, Duncan Rawson and Peter Wortsman, the event took place at Canada House in central London in the lead up to the UK general election on 4 July 2024.

The partners welcomed three guest speakers to share their experiences, before opening the discussion up to the wider audience with the goal of answering the following questions:

  • What are we going to do in the short and medium term to achieve more sustainable, resilient and profitable supply chains?
  • How do we better balance short term and long term?
  • What stands in the way of building more collaborative relationships?

While the event was held under Chatham House rules, Food Manufacture can share some of the key takeaways below.

Mindset shift required

To kick things off, it was argued that a fundamental mindset shift was required throughout the food supply chain if the desired changes are to be achieved. Without widespread buy in unforeseen consequences can arise, and therefore collaboration between producers, processors, government and wider society is essential.

Next, a speaker highlighted some of the opportunities they had identified within their own farming business. These included prioritising gross margins over yields and earning premiums for food that is produce to higher standards.

The guest also talked about the need for every decision to be taken with a view on the future, not just the next years. One example was the farms foray into director-to-consumer sales, which can reduce reliance on supermarkets and creates a window into the local community.

They also talked about the benefits of embracing farm clusters and working with partners and intermediaries that understand the importance of quality and employing ethical standards. To conclude, they called on the UK Government to deliver greater consistency in policy, which would allow for a longer term approach.

The value of cooperatives

Next up, a speaker looked at the importance of understanding every stakeholder throughout the food supply chain ranging from producers and suppliers to retailers and consumers. Each brings their own opportunities and pressures, but having a clear view of each one is vital for planning.

The speaker then looked at the value of being part of a cooperative – which by its nature is very collaborative. They explained that cooperative often take a longer term view on profit and sustainability than private or public companies and this is because of the sense of shared success and failure.

To conclude, they talked about the vision and purpose that drives everything within their business and how that is transferred down to their team. Without this, they argued, people won’t buy in to what you are all working towards.

The final speaker noted the lack of connection between younger people and food and suggested this likely was driving the recruitment crisis in the sector. Possible solutions, they offered, included investment into technology and automation, both in order to mitigate the impact of labour shortages, but also to attract staff.

Nature is our boss

After hearing each of the speakers, the discussion was opened up to the floor. To kick things off, one attendee noted that each of the key questions asked at the top were interlinked and argued that only through short term action, long term planning and industry-wide collaboration can solve of the issues solving the sector be tackled.

Next up, an attendee explained that while current supply chains are both competitive and interdependent, the weighting needs to change. At the moment, they said, producers and processors are too competitive with one another and this is at the expense of the long-term interests of the wider supply chain.

Another explained that the climate crisis was in many ways driving greater levels of collaboration because it offered a collective purpose – “nature is our boss,”​ they said. There is clear consensus around the need to tackle climate change and restore nature because ultimately without the environment, the entire system would collapse.

While this long term thinking might be possible with food supply chains, it is also reliant on support from government and a similarly forward thing outlook. For example, confidence for inward investment in the UK is reliant on a land use strategy and common carbon metrics that the whole industry can use and understand.

On the topic of carbon metrics, another speaker warned that it was also important to look beyond carbon, both at other resources but also at the inputs to food production and not just the outputs. A lone focus on carbon, the added, can lead to “perverse outcomes”.

Finally, it was agreed that policy needs to both guarantee the quality of UK produce, while also protecting suppliers working to those standards. A speaker argued that to ensure this, imports need to be held to the same standards, while exporters should better utilise their quality as a selling point.

In other news, industry leaders want 'evidence-based' debate on ultra-processed foods.

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