Searching for efficiency and innovation in the agri-food value chain

Shaofeng Liu is Professor of Operations Management and Decision Making at Plymouth Business School. She is also Joint Associate Head of the School of Research and Innovation. Professor Liu’s research interest explores the value chains for different products and services. Here she talks about recent work on the agri-food value chain.

To find out more about Professor Liu’s research and work on the agri-food value chain, please contact her via email.

 

Chains of global importance with regional relevance

Television footage of people panic buying ahead of the UK’s first national lockdown in March 2020 illustrated consumers’ fear and acceptance that the food supply chain is vulnerable and can be interrupted. My recent work looks at how value is added across the agri-food supply chain, both to the product and the people involved in food production and supply.

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of identifying and analysing risks in these value chains and the need to build resilience into them.

The chain, extending from the farmer to the consumer, can be very long, especially for food grown on another continent and imported into the UK. It starts with growers, passes to distributors and retailers, and ends with the consumer and diner. We investigate the resilience of these food value chains and the risks posed to them.

Living and working in the South West is ideal for anyone researching food. Many agri-food businesses are located in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. Our work requires us to build research relationships with farmers, growers and producers in local businesses.

We’ve recently conducted research in West Cornwall; this involved visiting the farmers’ fields, observing the processing line and quality control, interviewing and surveying staff, exploring how they made decisions around fertiliser and pesticide use. It is rewarding to build such close connections with the regional community; I know colleagues elsewhere at the University have done the same and some have even trialled robots harvesting cauliflowers.


Supporting local producers

The University supports regional producers through its membership of (and access to) international networks of food researchers. We currently have 20 research partners spread across Europe, South America and China.

These relationships let us tap into international research networks to obtain expertise and advice. We were recently working with local producers to identify and locate some specific seeds that would be suited to our climate in the South West; our international network can help us in this search.


Communications across the value chain

One particular area of interest is how knowledge moves along the value chain. 

Growers and farmers are used to communicating with each other but they are not necessarily able to talk directly to consumers or retailers. As regulation increases and interest in food production processes grows, communications across the chain is becoming more important; it can help define the shelf life of different foods for instance.

We explore how foodstuffs need to be stored across the value chain and the usage of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides in production. This helps us judge how safe the food is; information that needs to be passed along the chain to retailers and, ultimately, to consumers.


Ensuring the chain works efficiently

We are also exploring how to minimise food waste and disposal across the value chain. 

What steps can growers take to ensure their crops are not wasted and how can we stabilise demand for these crops so they do not end up rotting in the fields or on supermarket shelves?

No one wants to produce food that cannot be sold. It is important to consider the efficiency of the distribution chain to ensure that food arrives intact, looks appetising and is edible. This ensures retailers and consumers waste as little as possible.


Understanding consumer behaviour

We also work with consumers, trying to understand trends and changes to buying behaviour. 

We want to encourage consumers to understand the value chain as an entire food system. This means looking beyond the fruit and vegetables in their shopping basket and considering how the land these vegetables grew in was managed, or what the working conditions were like for those harvesting the food.

We know consumer purchasing power can be a potent force for change. Consumers are becoming more conscious of ethical and environmental issues; consider their power in driving down the use of plastic packaging for instance.


Risks to the value chain

With the UK leaving the European Union, and the interruptions to supply chains caused by the pandemic, people have experienced first hand the impact of food chains being interrupted.

Part of our risk and resilience work involved conducting an analysis of the value chain during the pandemic. Recent press coverage described the difficulties experienced by British shellfish producers exporting to Europe after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. This underlines the importance of building resilience capabilities into the chain at an early stage.

Starting with the farmer’s field, we identify and analyse all the risks along the chain: food storage, quality and handling risks, until we reach the diner’s plate. The theme linking these is information flow and ensuring knowledge is shared across stakeholders in the value chain.

The UK’s food value chain is more resilient than in many other countries. People here are good at planning and coordination; the connections between farmers, distributors, retailers and consumers usually work well.

We recently looked at a lettuce value chain in South America where lettuces were transported backwards and forwards across a geographical space; it was much more fragmented than here. Documenting these differences can be fascinating.