Food supply chain must evolve to avoid disruption

Last week’s inclement weather will have affected us all in different ways, but apart from kids, the experience was most probably not a pleasant one for the majority of people, writes Jim Power.

Food supply chain must evolve to avoid disruption

A lot of economic dislocation was created with many events and conferences having to be cancelled and the dislocation to the retail and hospitality sector will have been quite significant.

For retailers selling goods such as clothing or cars, the snow will most probably just have caused a postponement of a purchasing decision, but for restaurants and others in the hospitality sector, the loss of income is likely to prove more permanent.

For farmers, the damage was even more real, with the collapse of sheds under the weight of snow and the loss of animals a major catastrophe.

It all goes to prove that despite the massive technological advances we have made over the decades that when nature decides to strike a blow, there is not a lot we can do about it.

The vulnerability of the human race is still very striking.

Apart from the severe dislocation caused by the second major weather event in six months, a few other things struck me forcibly.

One is that the food supply chain is so precarious and one only had to witness the queues in shops and the shelves devoid of bread, milk, and other staples to realise just how fragile the just-in-time food supply chain is.

Food supply chain must evolve to avoid disruption

Incidentally, my local shop took a delivery of milk from up north on Saturday morning after failing to get a delivery from a local supplier.

Some supply-chain issues for the local supplier I would have thought.

As a self-proclaimed champion of the Irish food industry, I found it somewhat reassuring that a sense of panic started to creep in very quickly once the availability of milk and bread became an issue.

Food security during a time of war was traditionally used as a rationale for having a strong domestic food supply in every country, but while the likelihood of war has lessened considerably one hopes, climate change could now turn out to be even more disruptive and destructive than war.

Perhaps the events of last weekend will now convince people of the importance of having a strong and stable supply of domestically produced food and more importantly of the need to support domestic food producers.

The second thing that struck me even more forcibly was the benefit of having a good local shop.

I have always argued that people who flock across the border to the North to do their grocery shopping were in effect putting a nail in the coffin of the local shop and stripping our towns and villages of an important part of the retail fabric.

The value of that retail fabric was highlighted in vivid fashion last week.

Hopefully, a valuable lesson will have been learned and that thinking consumers will do more to support local businesses and local food producers.

If the climate scientists are to be believed, and I strongly suspect they are, then extreme weather events are likely to become a more common feature of our climate.

Consequently, the importance of having a secure local supply of food and local shops will become even more important.

The supply chain will have to evolve, however, to avoid the disruption caused last weekend.

The third thing that struck me was the fragile nature of our water supply system, which is simply not fit for purpose.

Those who opposed water charges should now be asking themselves where the necessary investment funding will come from.

One Irish commentator writing from Canada last week alluded to how bemused the Canadians were by our reaction to a few days of snow and the impact that it had.

It is easy to sneer at the Irish reaction last week, but the reality is that countries like Canada are well accustomed to dealing with snow and have the requisite infrastructure.

We are not accustomed to it in this country and hence we have never had the need to develop the infrastructure to deal with it.

It is seven years since we have had such heavy snow and it could well be another seven years, although I somehow doubt that based on what climate experts are telling us.

One thing is very sure, however, and that is while we can worry about trade wars, Brexit, cybersecurity and equity market volatility, the implications of climate change promise to have the most profound social and economic impacts that most living people have ever witnessed.

We need to think about the implications and prepare accordingly, insofar as is possible.

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