An open-ended discussion on ‘Power in the food system’ – a request for input

We’re seeking your input in developing our new theme: power in the food system. This theme will run through our written outputs, events and podcasts in 2021. We aim for this theme to be a dialogue process and we want to include the viewpoints and concerns that different stakeholders bring to this broad topic.

We’ve set up this discussion thread as a space to continue the discussion about power following our first event within this theme: An open-ended discussion on ‘Power in the food system’, which you can register for here.

For those who are unable to attend or come across this at a later date: After the event, we’ll embed a YouTube recording here.

We’re curious to hear from you:

  • Can you share some examples of how power operates in the food system in less obvious ways?
  • What view or assumption do you think should be challenged in discussions about power in the food system?

We appreciate hearing your views and ideas about what we should include in how we think about power, the topics and questions we should focus on, and suggestions for people and stakeholder groups we should involve.

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An example that may not be apparent is the role of the processor and management of risk. In the last ten years I have come across a number of examples where a new product has been of interest to retailers (such as supermarkets) and growers but not to processors. This week I came across a wheat trait that was considered to have important health benefits valued by the retailer and grower while the processor was less enthusiastic.

The reasons are that few within the food supply chain are highly profitable and the business solution to maintain profit is to lower cost. This is relatively certain compared with developing a new product that might require capital investment and despite research may prove unprofitable or vulnerable to competition if the market is created. Lowering cost usually requires simplicity and scale. A large silo is much cheaper than two smaller ones and there is only one button to press so may require less labour to operate too.

The processor usually buys the farm product to process and the purchase becomes part of the capital employed so that if the raw material increases in price even if the profit per unit is the same the return on capital falls.

Another issue of concern to me is the power of vested interests and the polarization of views. This applies to all involved. Too much reporting is without challenge or understanding and this creates the view that frames the debate and has consequences for consumers and producers. As importantly the shout determines the priority and this over rules the significance. Too few debates are rational whether gene editing or neonicotinoid use.