3 February 2014 – FAO report: transformations in traditional and modern food supply chains

The latest FAO report on ‘The state of food and agriculture 2013’ examines how modern and traditional food supply chains are integrating in developing countries by looking at how this effects nutritional outcomes.

There has been rapid growth in sales of processed foods in both traditional and modern food systems in the South, and global food manufacturers are tapping into sales opportunities in small shops in both urban and rural areas as part of corporate strategy. However, this strategy is harder to apply to perishable produce where production and distribution is highly fragmented and often seasonal. Figures show that in many countries, sales of fruit and vegetables, fish and meat remain concentrated in the traditional sector where low prices, flexible product standards, and accessible retail market locations mean that people on low incomes can buy affordable fresh food that they consider of good quality.

The report concludes that although modern supply chains can play an important role in preserving the nutritional content of food through increasing the availability and affordability of processed foods, this also poses the danger of exacerbating the ‘nutrition transition’, associated with overweight and obesity and high volumes of food waste at the consumer level (estimated at 30-40% in industrialized countries). Enhancing the efficiency of traditional value chains can help eliminate waste (which  is concentrated at farm level) and promote better nutritional outcomes by improving access for low-income people to safe, nutrient-dense foods like fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.

This carries an important message about how traditional and modern food systems need to exist in parallel, and that change from one to the other is not a simple linear transformation. Although the expansion of modern food supply chains may bring benefits to those with more income and preserve the nutritional content of some foods, more efficient traditional food systems remain vital for providing access to affordable, fresh food for those on low-incomes and in supporting local farmers and economies in the Global South. The fact that poor nutrition has become an escalating problem in the industrialized North is a startling and stark reality; there is much to consider about how transformation takes place – one thing it is not, is simple.

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