end of the toilet roll

Fisticuffs reveal food supply chain fragility

The food supply chain is fragile yet there is always food in the supermarket. We take this for granted, but we shouldn’t.

We just had a stark reminder of food supply chain fragility.

In the first COVID lockdown in Australia, it took only a short time for toilet rolls to disappear from supermarket shelves.

Although 4 billion people worldwide do not use toilet paper, Australians deem loo paper an essential service. They also forgot or did not know that there is sizeable local manufacturing, meaning supply was unlikely to be disrupted.

Instead, they bought up big.

Toilet tissue is a bulky item that takes up valuable real estate on aisle 15. Stock controllers work out the daily turnover and rely on the normal purchasing behaviour of customers to order enough to keep the shelves full just in time. Standard supply chain procedure optimises the number of deliveries to each store to avoid missing a sale.

Only people panicked.

They decided that toilet rolls were not just essential, but ‘OMG, what would happen if we ran out?’

The panickers bought double, three or four times the amount they would typically buy in a week and instantly, the shelves were empty.

There were terrible scenes of people hoarding five, six packets, even trolleys full of the stuff with old folk going without and asking politely for just one pack — some individuals’ selfishness was caught on video for all to see.

Food supply chain fragility brings shortages

At the start of 2021, the UK was braced for a toilet roll situation, only this time with food supply and household consumables. Border changes from Brexit produced vast queues of lorries in and out of ports. 

According to the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, almost half the food eaten by the 60 million people in the UK comes from overseas. Others report that it might be 80% depending on tonnage, value, processes, or raw material. 

Based on the farm-gate value of unprocessed food in 2019, half the UK supply was grown locally (55%), and the EU countries provided a quarter (26%), with Africa, Asia, and North and South America making up the rest of the food consumed. Remember that this is food for a population of 67 million people that need 146 billion kilocalories a day.

The three largest value imported commodity groups were fruit & vegetables, meat and beverages. 

Delays at borders mean one of two things.

There is enough storage capacity to buffer any wait time, keeping food on supermarket shelves at the usual rate. There has been no need to invest in this capacity until now, and the market does not spend money on unnecessary services. In the absence of storage buffers, delays result in shortages.

When the supply chain dynamics change, in this case, due to a political agenda, in the Sydney toilet roll debacle due to a health shutdown, there’s a high risk of panic buying.

empty supermarket shelves show food supply chain fragility
Photo by Boris Dunand on Unsplash

Reliance on the supply chain

There are several realities here.

Society relies heavily on supply chains. Almost all the people in mature economies shop for their food.

Intrepid green-fingered types grow a bit here and there, but most people exchange money for food. Every person is reliant on a secure food supply. 

We take this situation for granted, and governments work hard to ensure that food is readily available because they don’t want it to fail on their watch. Failure is likely to get them ousted within an instant. 

Supply chains are fragile, like a wine glass is fragile. It only takes a little for a market-driven system to break. 

Each link in the food supply chain is optimised to maximise profit. Market forces define the system’s efficiency within the constraints of individual efficiencies, available investment, and organisational capabilities. 

Markets optimise transfer (trades) rather than stability and resilience.

The level of turnover in warehouses is remarkable. They are just temporary storage with goods moving in and out rapidly. No money is made if goods sit on warehouse shelves. Consequently, there must be more storage capability and buffer should the system be interrupted.

The system is insecure because of design rather than physicality, which always looks complex and technical.

Food production security

The production end, how food is grown, is the natural focus of food security. Consumers can only eat if the food is grown. It is essential to convert biomass potential into edible products, or the chain stops before it starts. 

But the supply chain itself is critical to food security. And how that supply chain delivers resilience rather than profit is where security will be gained or lost. 

Should the supermarket run out of bananas, what will the minions eat? 

Most likely, COVID and Brexit issues are temporary problems. Politicians and the market will run around quickly to fix any market failure. And so the food supply chain fragility will be restored soon enough. 

In the meantime, there will still be something to eat on the shelves even if it’s packet noodles. 

Starvation won’t be the issue, at least not in mature economies. But the level of disruption and the triggers to basic instincts are enormous.

There will be fisticuffs in the aisles.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Keep an eye on food supply chain fragility. 

How food gets to your plate from the farm is just as important as what the farmer does to grow it.

Mature economies have allowed food to slot into the rules and expected efficiency of the market. This means a number of things that energe from what a market is designed to achieve—an exchange of goods or services for mutual benefit.

Efficiency assists profit and so the transactions along the supply chain are pushed to minimise cost. 

This starts with the cheapest raw materials processed into a great diversity of products to compete for the fickle price-sensitive customers. Typically this means lots of processing, packaging, transport and marketing that combine into complex and often long supply chains.

Competition and the ever present demand for profit converge to ever tighter margins on every transaction along the chain. 

A grain of wheat has taken a lot of effort and inputs to produce. It then travels via storage to the mill where it becomes flour and from there into one of a bewildering number of processing facilities to end up in a loaf of bread or a dry pancake mix or any of thousands of products on the supermarket shelf.

It is a long and convoluted journey.

The destination is food on your plate as beans on toast or pancakes with maple syrup.

Perhaps take a moment to think about all the food supply chain fragility next time you sit own to breakfast.

Or just imagine what happened to the grain of wheat and the toilet roll.

Hero image modified from photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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