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The Links That Feed Us

Reimagining our food supply chains


Our food supply chain was once no chain at all; whatever we could hunt, gather, or grow went directly on our plate. In time, links were added as dedicated local producers and purveyors emerged (with a few imports such as tea and sugar here and there). Today, a staggering number of steps can be involved in getting a food from the field to our mouth, most of them beyond our view and control.

If you were tasked with designing our food supply chain, chances are you’d want it to be ecologically responsible, safe, healthy, equitable, and resilient, with growers and eaters playing a central role. What we have, in fact, is a system dominated by large corporations where food is treated as a commodity rather than the inalienable right and cultural linchpin that it is.


Big business

If we wish for a more sustainable model, it helps to understand exactly how today’s food supply chains are failing us. Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo, Jennifer Clapp points to a concentration of power in the hands of a small number of companies as a key contributor to instability and unsustainability.

“There are just a few firms that dominate at almost all nodes of global food supply chains, from farm inputs like seeds and fertilizers, to food trade and processing, to grocery retail,” says Clapp. Such a concentrated system has little resilience in the face of disruptions such as climate events, pandemics, political conflict, or food contamination.

Nor does it serve producers or consumers when a handful of powerful players dictate which foods are grown and how, how much to pay suppliers, and how much to charge the rest of us. This corporate influence extends into government policy-making as well.



Global food giants aren’t deaf to consumer calls for a more environmentally responsible and reliable food supply. But their solutions involve tweaking the existing system while further entrenching it, increasingly bringing big data into the mix.

Do digitalization, automation, molecular technologies, and nature modification sound like genuine attempts to steward our planet and empower the average citizen?


Real transformation

If today’s supply chains are defined by industrial agriculture and corporate concentration, the antidote needs to be about agroecology and food sovereignty—in other words, diverse and regenerative growing practices and people’s right to shape their own food systems. A number of movements are working to achieve just that.


Playing fair

By eliminating transnational middle agents, the fair trade movement has created its own supply chains run by non-governmental organizations and small-scale producer organizations. Farmers are included in decision-making and can count on a fair price for their product, while workers are guaranteed decent working conditions. Fair trade is focused on the Global South where producers are most disadvantaged.


From the ground up

Another approach to food growing and distribution seeks to overhaul supply chains more completely, extracting them from the global market model. Sometimes called the peasant movement, the emphasis here is on sustainable local food production for local consumption, where things such as land and water use, crop and livestock diversity, and seed genetics are in the hands of producers. In short, it’s about true food sovereignty.


Shorter chains

On the distribution end, “territorial markets” are gaining interest. As Clapp explains, “These kinds of markets are typically linked more directly with local, national and/or regional food systems, and as such, have shorter supply chains that are grounded in place, embodying local conditions and knowledges, and fostering community and regional relationships.”


Levers of power

Some groups are pushing for legal and policy reforms to correct the power imbalance in the food system. There’s much that governments must be convinced to do, such as

·         properly taxing and regulating agribusinesses and investors

·         protecting the rights of farmers and consumers

·         “providing research and development support for research into alternative production models like agroecology that currently receive only a tiny amount of public funding,” as Clapp suggests


Most importantly

Some combination of all of these approaches, and more, will be needed to shape food supply chains we can truly call sustainable. The key is to continually ask, “Who is this serving?” And to never lose sight of what food actually is—not a commodity, but a birthright that has the potential to connect us meaningfully and beneficially to the earth and to each other.


Effect change

As the humble eaters at the receiving end of food supply chains, how can we help reshape them?

Engaged citizenship 

Jennifer Clapp encourages us to get active as voters and community members: “We can push governments at all levels to make policy changes that support more diverse food systems. We can get involved in decision-making around food systems by establishing and participating in local food policy councils.” Those diverse food systems and food policy councils exist—we just need to amplify them!

Purchasing power 

We fortify alternative supply streams when we purchase from farmers’ markets, grower collectives, direct from farms, or through fair trade. Focusing on more seasonal and home-prepared foods can help keep it all within budget.


Money where our mouths are

Fifty-six percent of shoppers in 12 countries say they’re willing to pay more for products with the Fairtrade label, up from 2021. And despite cost-of-living concerns, it’s young people ages 25 to 34 who are most willing to spend the extra money.


Farmer victory

After a year of sustained protesting from 2020 to 2021, thousands of Indian farmers succeeded in reversing legislation that would have favoured corporate power in the food industry.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of alive magazine.



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