Review: Beyond Global Food Supply Chains

Victoria Stead and Melinda Hinkston, eds. Beyond Global Food Supply Chains: Crisis, Disruption, Regeneration. Palgrave.  MacMillan. Open Access. (2022)

Richard Zimmer Sonoma State University

Victoria Stead and Melinda Hinkston have gathered an extremely important and timely set of essays addressing the effects of supply chain disruptions on the world of food.  Inspired by events in Australia as well as elsewhere during the Covid-19 epidemic, they illustrate the disastrous effects of breakdowns.  They also illustrate how different groups developed alternative solutions to these disruptions.  These essays do not reflect disruptions and shortages which have arisen from the war in Ukraine.  It will be interesting to see how accommodations develop because of that conflict. 

Overall, the essays show significant adverse consequences because of how national and international supply chains work.  The supply chains are tenuous and dependent upon people, events, and financing which can cause disruptions.  Adverse weather, drought, and non-existent or inadequate labor supply, not to mention the vagaries of financing entities involved in the production end of the process can create havoc. Products can be destroyed to keep prices up and small farmers can find themselves frozen out (2022: Chapter 1 [Melina Hinkson and Victoria Stead] and Chapter 2 [Lauren Richards and Melinda Hinkson].)

Food supply chains are vulnerable to manipulation by external players who have little to no regard for their actions’ local and wider consequences.  Sara Ruth Sippel argues that actors take advantage of any opportunity for such manipulation examples including both Covid and the financial crisis of 2008.  Many supply chains then became victims of financial markets’ investment strategies.   The people and infrastructure involved were weakened, ignored, and eliminated.  The solution for Sippel is more locally grounded supply chains, insulated from financial markets (2022: Chapter 3.)

Another problem that food chains face is getting a continuous supply of competent workers. Climate issues, epidemics, worldwide politics and immigration issues, financial policies, and supply chain disruptions cause shifts and shortages in agricultural production.  Consequently, foodstuffs may not get planted, harvested, or gathered.  Furthermore, labor shortages can lead to a demand for higher wages when revenues for foodstuffs may not cover the costs.  Local labor may not be a solution. And such demands may affect the generally marginal status of most agricultural workers and complicate immigration policies, as the authors mention for Australia (Victoria Stead and Kirstie Petron 2022: Chapter 4.) 

Kelli Donati offers some hope in one aspect of an agricultural area of Western Australia that had been farmed for wheat and used for raising sheep.  A couple is following regenerative farming techniques, ones that enrich the soil.  While still part of the effects of food supply chains, the two found cracks in them that could advantage more ecologically respectful ends.  In effect, their efforts can serve as a model for experiments and operations elsewhere (2022: Chapter 5.)

Then there is the disruption and related incidents and consequences caused by state-run policies and practices that can cause adverse consequences.  Daren Shi-Chi Leung details China’s top-down approach in attempting to feed its huge population.   The large-scale effort did not work.  Instead, local communities have developed a more populist approach, respecting more of the environment more and following “traditional” practices, such as growing plants that originally grew in that locale (2022: Chapter 6.)   This is a model that can be used elsewhere (cf. Canfield 2022 and his analysis of the Food Sovereignty Movement.)

People who design and then use supply chains premise these operations on them functioning at a high degree of continuity and efficiency.  Matthew Henry and Carolyn Morris use New Zealand examples of pork and flour during the Covid epidemic to show that these design and functioning expectations are unwarranted.  Rather, they argue, supply chain logistics should be better designed to include the likelihood of their fragility and their proneness to disruptions (2022: Chapter 7. See Reference 1 for a discussion of possible hacking on food chains.)

Further still, the Covid epidemic creates not just disruptions but significant crises in many places.  Maggie Dickinson delineates how this epidemic has increased hunger in the United States.  The “groundwork” for this crisis had been laid by the government withdrawing support for low-income and poor groups, many of whom are immigrants and most of whom are marginalized.  The result is pushing people into dangerous working conditions, often with disastrous environmental consequences (2022: Chapter 8.)

David Boarder Giles turns to the supermarket as one of the scenes of action during the Covid epidemic.  Focusing on an independent grocery store in Melbourne, Australia, Boarder Giles paints an ever-changing, often chaotic drama were managers, employers, and suppliers have to adjust to the availability of goods to stock the shelves.  The grocery store is where the public meets the disruptions and inadequacies inherent in supply chain fragility, especially during Covid (2022: Chapter 9.) Other retail outlets arise, benefiting from overstocking and/or poor planning because of the pandemic. (See, for example, Reed 2022:4 ff.)

As noted, above, disruptions in the food chain and government policies often fall disproportionately on certain marginalized and/or poor groups.  Jon Altman and Francis Markham show how the effects of the Covid epidemic worsened the situation for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.  They propose that future government policies be enacted to prevent these effects.  Their proposals align with the previously noted kinds of solutions Matthew Canfield outlines in the Food Sovereignty Movement, with more local origination and control (2022.)

The international response to the disruptions, including the ones caused by Covid, are problematical at best.  Tomaso Ferrando sees the UN Food Summit as not addressing the inherent fragility of food chains (2022: Chapter 11.)   What has happened is that big players, including foundations attempting to remedy the situation, have been able to use their influence for top-down approaches (cf.  Canfield 2022: 127-9 for a discussion of how the Gates Foundation operated before the pandemic.)

Are there solutions to the disruption of food chains?  One solution, predating climate changes, financial shocks, and Covid, was seen in consumer activism. Consumer ethics, it had been contended, could provide a locally based remedy to the effects of the disruptions.  Christopher Mayes and Angie Sassano argue that while commendable, consumer interests are not sufficient to address all the factors involved in disruption and should not be the focus of so much attention (2022: Chapter 12.) 

Lastly, Alex Blanchette says that agri-capitalism inherently does not allow for solutions because it acts in a state of “permanent emergency” (2022: Chapter 13.)  In other words, it is always in danger of falling apart from any or many causes.  One should look for smaller, more locally based, alternative solutions, rather than thinking that larger solutions will solve the problems.  As has been noted, above, this is the same argument that Canfield has made for food sovereignty (2022.)

Some of these solutions, aside from the ones this volume and Canfield suggest, may include vertical farming (see, for example, Reference 2.) Vertical farming is farming in urban areas in enclosed building spaces, with computer-controlled environments.  That kind of farming allows fewer workers, fewer transportation costs, and more reliable production of certain crops, such as tomatoes.

In addition, restructuring the food chain to make it less vulnerable to disruptions may entail changes in the kinds of worldwide cosmopolitanism of food that is pervasive in so much of the Global North.  We may find that not all exotic ingredients can be grown and sourced locally. Furthermore, we may not be able to eat foodstuffs that are out-of-season where we live and available only from places far away—and subject to disruption.  In North America, for example, we may not wind up eating summer fruit from somewhere else during our winters. On the other hand, solutions that may help in terms of labor shortages and strikes include automation, which reduces the need for labor and the consequences that result from that deficiency (Goodman 2022: B1+.)

This book is of crucial importance to anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, activists, and policymakers. It is suitable for upper-division and graduate students; it may be used for lower-division students, given some help.



Canfield, Matthew C. Translating Food Sovereignty:  Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance.  Stanford University Press.  Stanford, CA. 


Goodman, Peter S. Supply chain Broker?  Send the Robots. New York Times. September 14.  p.B1+


Reed, Kathryn. Too Much Stuff: Company Overstocks Turn into Bargains for Others. North Bay Business Journal. September 5, 2022.  P.4+

Reference 1

2022   (Accessed September 4, 2022)

Reference 2

2022 (Accessed September 5, 2022)

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