The perishable supply chain

Have you ever wondered about how Italian ice cream was invented – before electricity? Or, the significance of eggs at Easter? Ice cream reaches back in time to the Egyptians; the Mughals and 5th century Greeks with their snow mixed with honey and fruit. And hens always laid their eggs from April to June when their body clock said so. For most of recorded history, eggs were a springtime crop and, that’s where it starts.

Where am I going with this? The perishable supply chain combines technology to conquer borders and distance but we need to understand the dislocation involved in local communities and the environment itself. For example, as the Indian middle class grows so too does the demand for quality fruits and vegetables. Recently, in Delhi, I met with a company that is developing an impressive network of orchards up in the foothills of the Himalayas. This will take time so, there are plans to source apples and other quality fruits from … Chile.  

Refridgerated steam ships, chilled rail freight cars, domestic ice boxes and cold stores all opened up major opportunities. Tin cans gave Argentine farmers – especially from Fray Bentos – the means to access global markets like never before. And now, we can have strawberries or avocados all year round and source quality apples for discerning yuppies in Mumbai from South America. These days, fish can be anaesthesised and chilled for transport to be revived and served as fresh in the more lucrative markets of the Far East. 

In 1930’s New York, Schrafft’s chain of restaurants detailed the mileage its exotic produce had travelled to reach the table of its privileged diners. The fame of the menu was that Schrafft’s fruit cocktail could be delivered fresh after 7,800 miles and that the ingredients of the vegetable salad had covered 22,250 miles. But that was when miles travelled meant status and not irresponsible depletion of global energy resources.

We need to transform the perishable supply chain through adaptable, affordable and accessible technologies. For example,  

  1. Champion adaptable technology: Use global good practice to maximise yields and productivity on the ground. In India, 40% of post harvest product rots on the way to market. Some would dispute this fugure arguing that much of the waste is recovered and used as cattle fodder. The point is that this impacts the % added value and is part of the reason why India processes only 3% of its harvest versus > 70% in Brasil. Technologies and, the skills to use them need to be adapted to local purpose.
  2. Drive affordable technology. There is no way that emerging and developing economies can afford the equipment that is on offer. More needs to be done to develop simpler options – who needs a multi function toaster – or tractor – anyway! More to the point, what financial instruments are in place to enable more farmers to afford technology. And here we are back at the de Soto thesis whereby lack of legal title and a corresponding inability to access conventional funding is as much a constraint as the price tag itself.  

    And elsewhere on this Blog we have explored ideas on the chill chain from shelf ready packaging; gazebos at the side of fields to provide vital shade post harvest; deploying refrigerated containers powered by phot-voltaic technologies to prolong shelf life etc. And, as elsewhere on this Blog, every effort has to be made to make all forms of renewable energy affordable to the Majority World.
  3. Develop G/local (Global + Local) accessibility that optimises transit costs and enhances connectivity – not just between countries but between local rural areas and their proximate urban centres? So many local communities cannot access markets beyond the one that is within walking distance. This idea is developed in Jeb Brugman’s recent book on the Urban Revolution where ideas on density, scale and association include the linkage of urban communities with rural areas closer to home. And this could be the key to reducing the miles on the plate and, even a return to a seasonality of produce that makes sense.  

Last year, when food prices spiked there were food riots in Milan as well as all over the developing world. This week, Mauritius joined the long list of countries buying arable land elsewhere to provide food for the future when they moved to buy land in close by Mozambique. As global population grows from 6 to a projected 9 billion by 2050 what we do about food security will have a major impact on social and political stability. More specifically, the perishable supply chain is where innovation and implementation needs to focus. Fast.

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4 Responses to The perishable supply chain

  1. Byron Song says:

    A brilliant piece, thank you. In my opinion, affordable and adaptable technology/skills are the keys to accessibility which is the ultimate purpose of the supply chain.

  2. S Freidberg says:

    It would be much appreciated if you cited your sources for this post.

  3. robjbell says:

    Aside of the references to Ice cream and the Schraffts anecdote (which was in one of my notebooks from years ago!) the ideas are mine. I refer to Adaptability; Affordability and Accessibility. These comments come from my own experience. If there is a specific you wish to elaborate on – just ask. It may be an excuse for another Post!

  4. robjbell says:

    And Jeb Brugmann’s book is an excellent read. In addition on Urbanism I have been reading all sorts of stuff from Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme; various things on Global City Regions (Saskia Sassen); and some classic texts on the City. Amazing how some of the notes from Braudel’s work on early Modern History have clues on the manual distribution system allied to greater use of the sea. I tend to read a mix of historical and practical texts before I discuss the idea with a network of people in the field. Then, the debate begins … Let me know what you want to elaborate and maybe we could skype through the detail.

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