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The Food Chain

  • Written by  Toby Waine
  • Published in Opinions
Cocoa pods from Ambanja, Madagascar. The world's chocolate supply depends on such commodities, despite political instability Cocoa pods from Ambanja, Madagascar. The world's chocolate supply depends on such commodities, despite political instability Pierre-Yves Babelon
03 Jul
The world needs a much clearer understanding of just who is growing what – a reliable world map of agricultural production

For instance, the international vanilla supply – a very small-scale, specialist crop for farmers – was severely affected by weather in India and Mexico in 2012. The result was steep price rises and scarcity in 2013. It also meant a great deal of dependence on the Madagascan crop – a country beset by political instability.

Vanilla is a good example of where stronger relationships and incentives for farmers are needed. In the past there have been occasions of oversupply and low prices, so farmers naturally shifted their land to more lucrative crops.

Another example is in the shortage of palm oil, which has been a recurring political issue in Thailand, where it is a staple in household cooking. The government resorted to importing oil from neighbours in 2011 to ease the ‘crisis’.

Given the scale and sophistication of agribusiness, it would be a reasonable assumption that crop production is carefully mapped and managed, with knowledge shared between farmers, traders and food manufacturers across global networks, as it is in other sectors such as the automotive industry. However, ‘growing’ has always been different and only in some areas such as cereal crops in the USA, is there reliable data.

What we have for many everyday food products are supply chains which are rooted in large numbers of small farmers, all different types of business operation, working different types of land with different approaches. This is particularly the case with food ingredients that only grow in specific climates, such as crops grown in Asia and South America, including cocoa, vanilla, tea, coffee and palm oil, which can feature in more than half the products in a typical supermarket basket. This also means much higher levels of risk for the food industry, and has wider consequences to market stability, governments seeking food security and economic stability as it ultimately impacts the rate of inflation.

We depend for our wellbeing on a well functioning supply chain into and from our manufacturers, and we assume they have complete control over land and production

In many countries, sustainable food production depends on viable small enterprises and growers. For instance, 40 per cent of the world cocoa production comes from Côte d’Ivoire, grown on farms with only a few hectares of cocoa trees. This results in a fragmented supply of these food products which causes instabilities in the market and food production chain. As consumers we are so used to consistency and quality in our food brands, the almost magical continuity of shelves stocked with our favourites, that we don’t consider the possibility of scarcity. We depend for our wellbeing on a well functioning supply chain into and from our manufacturers, and we assume they have complete control over land and production.

In truth, we are faced with serious looming challenges to this state of ease and complacency. There are already significant changes in patterns of demand, like the new taste for chocolate in China. Sales of chocolate are forecasted – by US firm Hershey’s – to grow 60 per cent between 2014 and 2019, a financial worth of $4.3billion. Giants like Cargill have invested hugely in expanding their cocoa bean processing operations. But who’ll be providing all the beans? About 3.5 million tonnes of cocoa are produced each year – but it looks like 4.5 million will be needed to meet consumer demand by 2020. Last year, for the first time, the global coffee market saw shortages partly due to a drought in Brazil, leading to steep price rises. A few percentage points growth in terms of consumer demand in countries with huge numbers of new middle class consumers can result in significantly more instability in the global supply.

In addition, we don’t fully understand the implications of climate change on the production of crops. But there will be significant changes over time in what can be grown, where in the world and in what quantities. We’re looking at a future of much greater uncertainty, competition among producers and disruption to those established consumer relationships with ‘their’ brand.

A first step in developing solutions is to have systems which map and monitor current crop production worldwide. Satellite-based monitoring systems have been widely used since the 1970s for the assessment of the use and management of land, including crop production. Improvements in the satellite sensor quality as well as dramatic changes in the availability of satellite images means that we now have access to near-daily Earth observation capability at much higher resolution than before.

At Cranfield University, we’ve been developing innovative digital classification approaches based on a combination of different types of remote sensing data alongside detailed information from the ground to create a more accurate picture of the extent of production, and also the likely levels of yield both now and for the future.

With a clear map of agricultural production we have a basis both for finding the right kinds of incentives and balancing farmer needs against those of long-term sustainability.

Dr Toby Waine is a lecturer in Applied Remote Sensing, Cranfield Soil & Agrifood Institute, Cranfield University

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