Inside the world’s critical food supply chains

Posted: 12 June 2024 | | No comments yet

Global food supply chains are complex and fragile, facing increasing pressures from wars, natural disasters, and climate change. Here Professor Chris Elliott highlights a recent WFP meeting in Kenya highlighted the urgent need for a coalition to improve logistics, transparency, and food safety in humanitarian aid.

chris' corner

By Professor Chris Elliott

For many years I have studied and participated in a range of projects related to global food supply chains. They have, in virtually every case I have been involved with, been very complex and have weaknesses which can result in food safety issues, fraud issues or both.

They have also been shown to have many more stressors than was previously the case and issues of resilience have reared their heads leading to supply disruptions. But I only became aware of some of the difficulties, complexities and problems associated to humanitarian aid supply chains when I was asked to provide scientific support to an incident that caused many hundreds of food aid recipients to become ill and resulted in five deaths a number of years ago.1 The food had been supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP), a remarkable organisation that supplies humanitarian aid to many millions of those suffering from acute food insecurity each year.2

 Very recently the WFP convened a group of multidisciplinary experts from organisations such as the FAO, UNIDO, USAID, governmental food safety authorities, academia and the private sector to Mombasa in Kenya to discuss humanitarian food assistance and the growing problems associated with its distribution. I was one of the attendees at the meeting and I learned much more about the increasing pressures on the humanitarian aid sector in terms of their growing challenges caused by wars, natural disasters and climate change. I also learned a lot more about the unbelievable complexities and challenges around keeping their supply chains functioning. Apart from all of the issues I outlined, to me there seems to be too many additional prohibitive restrictions, inconsistent guidelines and standards which impact all humanitarian food agencies in providing vital supplies to where they are needed most.

We visited a WFP warehouse in Mombasa to see at first hand how aid is stored and distributed to 14 different countries in East Africa, some of which have wars raging within and between their borders. I was struck by the size and degree of organisation of the warehouse but also that it only had around a quarter of the supplies that it held just a few years ago. The concern of the warehouse staff about the huge demands on supplies and dwindling reserves was palpable. 

 While there are numerous and growing problems which trying to provide food aid to the growing number of acutely food insecure citizens in many parts of the world there was a strong consensus that the problems were solvable by the workshop participants. What we agreed the formation of a coalition of stakeholders is urgently needed. A group of thought leaders who can co-design systems which will provide better understanding, greater transparency, improved data sharing that will facilitate greatly improved logistics along the many humanitarian aid supply chains. All of the workshop participants  emphasized the continued importance of food safety across all aspects of the humanitarian food system and make heart-felt commitments to creating the working group to advance and implement a  roadmap that was created during the event. While the topics of discussion were incredibly serious the energy and optimism of the workshop participants was amazing to experience and I am extremely proud to be part of this group that will bring about some much needed new ways of thinking and acting going forward.

The next time you see a truck delivering badly needed food aid on your TV screen, just think a moment about how it actually got there to provide vital nutritious and safe food to those who desperately need it.



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