Building the Safty Net


September 22, 2008

Devangshu Dutta

In a departure from popular retail philosophy, Devangshu Dutta calls for a new model of food supply based on multiplicity and diversity. Modern retail must, he says, take into account the changing environment and be sensitive to evolving consumer preferences and to the failures and obsolescence of traditional mass retail models adopted by western developed markets.

Devangshu Dutta is chief executive of Third Eyesight, a management consulting firm focused on consumer products and retail, whose clients include brand leaders and some of the largest companies in their respective markets.

Food price inflation it is still hogging the headlines. It is, after all, an emotive topic. We are terribly concerned not just as food and grocery professionals, but also as consumers and the general public. After all, food and grocery typically account for half of our monthly spend, give or take a few percentage points.

Most students of management, economics, and human behaviour are aware of Abraham Maslow’s classification of human needs into a hierarchy construct. Other economists and psychologists prefer to use other models. Whichever model you consider, the need to eat and the need for security are invariably at the bottom or base level which must be fulfilled the earliest.

The interesting fact is that well after you would imagine these basic concerns have been taken care of, they are actually never

far from the surface. This is true not just of the poorest of the poor, but of the wealthy and the well-off as well—whether individuals, communities, or nations.

Increasingly, the agricultural supply chain is dependent on non-renewable petroleum and its products, rather than by the natural energy of the sun being converted into food by the plants.

Is it any wonder that “food security”—the combination of these two—is such a charged subject, especially in these times?

However, a significant set of questions is not really touched in the question of costs and in the question about the continuing security of food supplies: how the food supply chain is structured, how it is driving consumption, what impact that might have on food prices and several broader cost implications.


Thousands of years ago, when hunter-gatherer human beings stumbled upon agriculture, it was a breakthrough similar to the discovery of controlled fire. Hunter-gatherers were dependent on the natural availability of food, while agriculture created the opportunity to have some control over food supplies and reduce the natural feast-famine cycle. Thereafter, farming, processing and storage techniques kept evolving incrementally to ensure that more food could be produced for each unit of land and effort, and stored for longer – all moving towards ensuring “food security”. This led to the age of empire-building, where monarchs grew their wealth (essentially food territory) with the help of military- imperial complexes, and the greater wealth in turn supported the military-imperial complex.

This remained the trend for a few thousand years, until the age of industrialisation and the age of petroleum. Through the industrialisation and the world wars, the military- imperial complex gave way to a military-industrial complex, which essentially became the military-industrial-petroleum- agricultural complex. Suddenly, there were not just machines to plant, reap, thresh, sort, clean and process, but also petroleum-based and synthetic substances to dramatically increase output and to keep the produce fresher for longer.

As farms industrialised, the parameters that began to be applied were the same as in any factory—how to produce more while spending less—and every year the target was to grow more for less. Underlying this was the principle of “efficiency from larger scale”. The same philosophy played out further down in the supply chain – from processing aimed at extending the shelf-life of the product as it was (chilling, cleaning, sorting) to processing and packing in order to change the nature of the product itself and gain additional value (such as turning tomatoes into puree and potatoes into chips).

Standardisation became a vital link in industrialisation—if you can standardise produce, you can cut down human handling —while you may lose product variety (including flavour and colour) you gain through lower production costs. By reducing unpredictability, you can also concentrate on building the scale of business, because it becomes more repetitive.

The interesting side-effect of this is that, gradually, we are converting ourselves (and people in many industrialised economies already have) into petroleum-burning machines rather than those running on solar energy, because increasingly, the agricultural supply chain is dependent on non-renewable petroleum and its products, rather than by the natural energy of the sun being converted into food by the plants.

The important thing to keep in mind is that, in this switch- over, energy efficiency is actually going down rather than up

Energy efficiency is actually going down rather than up – we are using more calories of fuel source to produce each calorie of food energy.

—we are using more calories of fuel source to produce each calorie of food energy.

So it is worth asking the question: can lower costs actually be costing us more?


The growth of industrial agriculture has not happened alone, but has been accompanied by the growth of modern or “organised” retail.

On the one hand, large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro and others, have been widely credited for achieving cost-efficiencies from scale, and then passing on these efficiencies to the consumer in the form of lower prices (and, apparently, higher standards of living). That is a good thing and definitely of benefit to the population at large, especially in inflationary times such as these. Surely, it is good to push for lower costs rather than keeping prices high as a result of inefficient sourcing, wasteful and expensive handling, and non-value-adding costs in the supply chain.

On the other hand, these organisations are driven to standardise their own product offerings, reduce the number of supplier touch-points and increase the volume per supply source.

There is not just a reduction in diversity of suppliers, but also a reduction in the number of product variants. (I’m not referring to the number of “types” of potato chips or packaged meals, but to the actual core food product—the natural species or sub-species that are the basic source.) Of course, agriculture itself is a process of consciously selecting and encouraging species that are more useful to us humans, but industrial


We don’t have to look too far into the future to realise that this is not a sustainable model. (Or, as someone pithily said: “Only fools and economists believe in infinitely compounding growth.”) So far, this model has impacted less than a fifth of the world’s human population, but now the growth markets of choice for industrial agriculture companies are China and India. If these two countries move through the exactly same path as have the western economies in terms of agriculture and food processing, given the population base itself the impact may be 5-7 times (or more) on the demand for petroleum as well as the fall-out on the ecosystem.

You may ask: why should retailers and their suppliers worry about this?

Firstly, pure cost considerations – clearly, the costs of petroleum are ranging at the highest levels ever, and explosive demand through industrialised agriculture will only serve to push them up. How far can you push the food bill every month, before people start buying less? What impact would that have on large retail supply chains and farmers whose processes are increasingly built around products of industrial agriculture?

Secondly, what consumers are already beginning to express in western markets will possibly happen in India in the next few years as well: concern about where and how the product has been produced, what has been the fall-out on the environment and on the overall health of people involved with that supply chain as well as the health of consumers. Carbon footprint, food miles and locavores (people who only consume food that is produced within 100 miles of where they live) are terms that companies are increasingly becoming familiar with.

agriculture takes it to a completely different level. Carbon footprint, food miles

The industrial-agricultural-retail economic model can be paraphrased as follows:

  • Businesses (especially those that are publicly held) need to show growth in profits each year

  • Growth in profits can come from higher sales at the same cost base or lower costs

Carbon footprint, food miles and locavores (people who only consume food that is produced within 100 miles of where they live) are terms that companies are increasingly becoming familiar with

And an alternative set of questions is also being raised. Is it ok to burn non-sustainable fossil fuel if you get “carbon credits” by planting trees somewhere else—have all the carbon costs been accounted for from the start to the finish of the production process? Is it better to reduce the food miles and have food produced locally in a high-cost economy’s industrial agricultural model, or to have naturally grown foods from a more primitive farm in Africa or Asia where the environmental impact is only the “carbon debit” of the air-freight. And, even if the produce is carbon-friendly, what about the nitrogen footprint (from the fixation of nitrogen into fertilisers) and the methane footprint (from large scale animal farming)?


And finally the question of maintaining diversity must be top- of-mind. For all its so-called inefficiency, diversity is actually a great shock-absorber. Imagine a bean bag or a piece of foam —what gives them their cushioning ability is the space and air between the little balls, or the material. Now imagine a cropland that is attacked by a pest—if there is diversity in the plant population, there is a good chance that certain varieties will survive even if others don’t; unlike a cropland with limited variety which may be totally wiped out (and possibly the farmer with it). Further imagine a supply chain that has multiple

suppliers with the same or similar product versus one where the supply base is highly concentrated. Which ecosystem do you think will survive better during times of trouble, even if some of the suppliers—a part of the ecosystem—do not? (One doesn’t have to think too far: the example of the former Soviet Union with its mega manufacturing plants supplying the whole country are a case in point.)

To really find long-term solutions for food security issues, retailers, suppliers, economists and governments need to acknowledge that sustainable safety lies in numbers and diversity. A dispersed economic system with a lot of variety has resilience built in. And the solutions may actually be very close at hand, in the updating of traditional techniques.

It is high time to start figuring out how India (and China) can take the lead in creating an alternative and more sustainable model for food security for large populations, rather than blindly push development models borrowed from the 19th and 20th century western economic history.


Building the Safty Net


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