12 reasons why industrial-scale supply chains are driving environmental harm in the fresh produce sector

12 reasons why industrial-scale supply chains are driving environmental harm in the fresh produce sector

False Economies of Scale: why big isn’t always better in the food system

12 reasons why industrial-scale supply chains are driving environmental harm in the fresh produce sector

By Rebecca Laughton

29th June 2021

The demand for uniformity and cosmetic perfection from the industrial supply chain drives the creation of monocultures, such as this orchard in Somerset

Rebecca Laughton, Horticulture Campaign Co-ordinator at the Landworkers’ Alliance, explains why the government must urgently increase support for local, ‘farmer-focussed’ supply chains

The Landworkers’ Alliance, a UK union of agroecological farmers and growers, has been running a horticultural ‘test and trial’ for the Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), part of the replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy. This has involved interviewing growers about how the ELMS can support them to improve their environmental performance. A theme that arose repeatedly during these interviews was the role of industrial supply chains in driving growers to protect their vanishingly narrow margins through practices such as agrochemical use, overuse of soils and wasting produce that is ‘graded out’.  In contrast, the agroecological growers in the ELMS trial who supply urban box schemes that prioritise seasonality, sustainable production and a fair price for farmers (‘farmer focussed’ supply chains), felt supported in using techniques that encourage biodiversity and soil health, and minimise waste. In the light of this research, I set out below 12 reasons why, in our view, industrial supply systems, including supermarkets, processors and mass catering, are driving environmentally harmful practices.

  1. Mismatch of scale and capacity. Supermarkets, the catering trade and public procurement demand large quantities of produce at a low price, ideally dealing with as few suppliers as possible to minimise admin.  Small-scale, diverse and organic producers cannot meet these criteria, even though collectively they are producing large quantities of high-quality food. Industrialised supply chains are not designed to cope with the number of producers, the diversity of produce and seasonality that are a natural function of environmentally sound systems.
  2. Demand for uniformity and constant, year-round production. Supermarkets demand uniform produce and year-round production, rather than following seasonal availability. This drives growers to reduce diversity rather than using traditional varieties that enable season extension, due to their keeping qualities, and leads supermarkets to rely on imports for some of the year. For example, a Kentish apple producer on our ELMS trial finds that supermarkets want the same five varieties of apples all year round, rather than allowing seasonal variation, despite finding there is a demand in his farm shop for the wider variety of apples he grows in smaller quantities.
  3. Cosmetic perfection. Stringent specifications from industrial buyers for appearance and size drive farmers to use agrochemicals to reduce the risk of problems such as scab (which can impact appearance without affecting flavour) and to waste produce that isn’t the right size.  Although monitoring and other Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques are used to reduce pesticide use, spraying every 7-10 days according to infestation levels and weather conditions is still common.
  4. Reliability requirement.  Industrial contracts require reliability of delivery to a specified quality and size, driving excess production to reduce the risk of not delivering. This means more land and other resources must be used to ensure a contract is fulfilled, resulting in in-built waste. Although the surplus might find a market, it is often ploughed back into the ground. For example, a salad grower in our ELMS trial grows crops at several sites in separate areas to reduce the risk of hail or flea beetle damage, requiring travel between sites and frequent waste of surplus crop.
  5. Power imbalance. The power balance between supermarkets and packer intermediaries, on one hand, and individual producers, on the other, is stacked against the growers, who are forced to be price takers rather than price makers, and accept low margins.
  6. Low margins.  Aggressive supermarket buying power and competition from foreign imports means profit margins for growers are small, driving them to cut costs and use practices that harm soil, biodiversity and water resources in order to maximise production from available land area (for which high rents are being paid). For example, rather than cropping a piece of land once per year and then establishing a cover crop to build fertility and prevent erosion of soil left bare over winter, a grower must grow two or three crops per year to maximise income. Such narrow margins reduce willingness to take risks and innovate with environmentally beneficial production methods.
  7. Transport. Centralised distribution systems mean it is more cost-efficient to transport produce to depots where large quantities can be packed together and then distributed to stores, rather than delivering direct to point of sale. This leads to situations such as the one from our trial where produce is being transported from Lincolnshire to Scotland to be packed and then back to supermarkets around Lincolnshire to be sold.
  8. Refrigeration and cold stores. To keep produce fresh during sometimes long journeys from field to table, large quantities of energy are required to power refrigeration and cold stores (both static and in lorries), generating greenhouse gas emissions.
  9. Freshness and nutrition. Long-distance transport results in decay of produce (even when stored in controlled environments such as chillers or CO2-manipulated), meaning it is less fresh when it arrives with the consumer and has less nutritional value, compared to produce that is delivered within a day or two of harvest (as happens with direct and local sales).
  10. Waste. There is a strong financial case for supermarkets minimising waste from their own operations, resulting in only 3% of UK post-farm food waste arising directly in retail.  However, research in food supply chains has consistently shown that supermarkets’ trading stipulations are a leading cause of farm-level surplus. These include order cancellations, last-minute changes to forecasts, retrospective changes to supply agreements and the use of cosmetic specifications (requirements for food shape, size and colour), leading to a third of produce being wasted on farm as a result of supermarket contracts.
  11. Packaging. More plastics are needed to package produce that is stored for longer periods, to prevent desiccation and wilting. National, rather than local, systems make the reuse of cardboard boxes and plastic crates difficult, so new packaging has to be used. Local suppliers tend to reuse boxes multiple times, using the equivalent of the ‘Danish Trolley System’¹, so that the purchase of packaging is minimised. Box schemes and Community Supported Agriculture schemes provide each customer with bags or boxes which are filled and then returned.
  12. Distribution of sale price along the supply chain. A farmer’s share of the money spent on food is around 8% for food sold to supermarkets and 26% for food sold to food manufacturers.  By contrast, farmer-focussed supply chains ensure that a much larger percentage of the sale price goes to the producer. For example, at Growing Communities, a fruit-and-veg bag scheme in Hackney, 50p in every pound spent goes to the grower. In a similar vein, Open Food Network food hubs and shops set their own mark-ups, which are displayed against all products on every online shopfront.  On average 76% of the final selling price of products on Open Food Network shopfronts is paid to the primary producer.

In short, we cannot afford not to go down the route of trading a greater percentage of food via shorter, farmer-focussed supply chains, if we want to achieve true sustainability in farming. This is why Landworkers’ Alliance is asking the Government to support a transition to 25% of food to being sold via local or decentralised supply chains by 2030, in its Vocal for Local campaign.  To read our newly published ‘Vocal for Local’ report and find out more about how you can add your voice to our campaign, please visit our website.

Since completing an MSc in Sustainable Agriculture at Wye College over 20 years ago, Rebecca Laughton has combined work as an organic farmer and grower with research and advocacy for small- and medium-scale agroecological producers.

This is a shortened version of a blog published on the Landworkers’ Alliance website on June 4th 2021. See here for the original version.

[1]    Danish Trolley System – In Denmark and the Netherlands, and now in some UK plant nurseries, trolleys for moving plant trays are shared in a national ‘pool’, so that they are transferred backwards and forwards between suppliers and thus recirculated in a similar way to cash.

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