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This content is taken from the EIT Food, Queen's University Belfast & European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)'s online course, Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis. Join the course to learn more.
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What are Food Supply Chains?

In the previous article we mapped the actors in the agri-food chain. However, the modern day supply chain is typically not linear. It involves ingredients and products being sourced and transported throughout a range of countries and supply chain players for raw materials, processing and retailing.

The Food Supply Chain

Supply chains describe the multitude of processes and activities that connect the transformation, processing and movement of goods from raw materials to finished goods and products.

A food supply chain can be described as:

a series of movements and transactions of food and/or food products upstream and/or downstream, by a network of stakeholders from the original supplier, in the food and/or food products simplest form to the final customer in the intended form of use

There are many stakeholders and moving parts involved in getting a product from A to B. This includes: networks of organisations and companies, coupled with information sharing, technology and other resources to transition products from suppliers to consumers in its intended form of use.

Rather than being linear, food supply chains typically take the form of networks of nodes with upstream and downstream linkages. These supply chains can be:

  • Long or short
  • Fragmented or streamlined
  • Simple or complex
  • Global or local
  • Efficient or slow

Food supply networks vary depending on:

  • The number of components (i.e. processes and activities)
  • How vertically integrated they are (fewer steps in the chain indicates a more vertically integrated supply chain)
  • How many product forms are supplied to customers
  • The number of markets supplied

The terms supply chain and supply network are often used interchangeably. Supply chains generally refer to a simpler linear system, while supply networks generally involve a more complex chain with lateral links, reverse loops and two way exchanges.

Example: The Seafood Supply Chain

Fox et al., (2018) mapped the Seafood Supply Chain in the United Kingdom. By the end of the seafood supply chain, the chain of custody of the product involved many actors between the fisher, aquaculturist and final consumer. Commonly these included: brokers, traders, wholesalers, distributors and other middlemen, often distant from the consumer and the markets they supply. Each actor carries out diverse and variable operations and functions to achieve a complex range of products distributed nationally and internationally.

The nine nodes in the finfish supply chain from source to consumer The Finfish Supply Chain (Fox et al., 2018) (Click to expand)

This paper is available in the ‘See Also’ section below

It is important we map and understand each of our supply chains in order to mitigate against any risks, vulnerabilities or threats which may exist. We will talk about these in more detail later in the course.

What we would like you to do

Please reflect on the complexity of the food chain and share your thoughts in the comments section below:

  • How do you think a food crisis might impact food supply networks globally?

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

EIT Food