Redistributed Food Manufacturing: Opportunities and Concerns

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Some foods like fruits and vegetables require no processing before being eaten. Some foods like milk and seafood require a little processing before being eaten. However, most of the foods we buy in the supermarket will have been processed in some way to transform them from the original materials (e.g. wheat, tomatoes) into what is actually eaten (e.g. bread, tomato paste). Where a significant transformation of the raw materials has occurred, and where this is done on a large scale using machinery, we call it food manufacturing. During this process the digestibility, palatability, appearance, safety, storage potential and nutrient profile all change, as does the value.

 

 Dr John Ingram (Co-investigator) is the Food Programme Leader at Environmental Change Institute (ECI) in the University of Oxford. He is leading on the food feasibility project.
Dr John Ingram (Co-investigator) is the Food Programme Leader at Environmental Change Institute (ECI) in the University of Oxford. He is leading on the food feasibility project.
 Dr Aidong Yang (Principle investigator) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Science of the University of Oxford. He is leading on the system integration feasibility project.
Dr Aidong Yang (Principle investigator) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Science of the University of Oxford. He is leading on the system integration feasibility project.

Over the last hundred years or so, the wide array of technologies used has radically changed, as has the location of the manufacturing activity. Before this time, almost all food (particularly staples such as bread, cheese, and meat products), was manufactured within a few tens of kilometres of consumption, with numerous local enterprises satisfying demand. However, the majority of foods we eat are now manufactured more centrally by fewer, bigger enterprises. This has been driven by economies of scale for energy, water and labour, and more effective distribution networks as communications and ‘cold chains’ have improved. This has resulted in centralised food manufacture that is more profitable, and allows greater uniformity of product. These enterprises do however use large amounts of water and energy, the latter especially in distribution from the central facility.

 

The desire to find ways to limit water and energy consumption in the food sector and recent engineering and technological advances in food processing has raised the issue of ‘redistributed’ manufacturing (RDM) of food. Redistributed manufacturing is concerned with moving away from centralised manufacture to more localised manufacture of food. This raises questions about the implications of this change such as ‘What are the potential changes in energy and water use of ‘localising’ food manufacture without compromising food security?’, and ‘What would this mean for business and livelihoods of those engaged in the food sector?’.

 

Bread

Answering these high-level questions will require detailed research on social, economic, political and technological fronts, and hence a range of ‘researchable’ questions will need to be formulated. This task is the focus of the “Local Nexus Network” project (LNN), jointly funded by EPSRC and ESRC. In this project, ‘local nexuses’ refers to decentralised energy and water supplies that interact with the localised food system. The sustainable development of local nexuses has the potential to contribute to the shared prosperity between business and community and between human society and natural ecosystems. This calls for a combination of ‘smart’ engineering (smaller scale technologies, integrated processes) and driving forces from businesses, communities and policy makers. To understand the opportunities and concerns it is critically important to have close interaction between the project team and local and national stakeholders involved in the food sector. . To this end the LNN project organises stakeholder workshops to learn from those actually engaged in food manufacturing.

 

The first national-level workshop was in London in late November 2015, and asked the following questions:

 

  • What are the negative outcomes of localised as opposed to centralised manufacturing?
  • What are the positive outcomes of localised as opposed to centralised manufacturing?
  • What are the challenges for businesses operating or intending to operate in the localised manufacturing space?
  • What are the means by which these challenges might be overcome in order for the sector to grow?

Stakeholders from large industry, NGOs, academia and trade bodies identified a number of technological, socio-economic and political challenges and opportunities in food RDM that are shown in the table below:

  Technological Socio-economic Political
Challenges ·    Downscaling machinery to small-scale

·    Traceability and food safety

·    Acceptance/desire for more variable food

·    Greater split of society given possible price implications

·    Inertia and drive from large corporations for maintaining the status-quo – power arrangements

·    Political will to take on the status-quo

·    New legislation and intervention needed

Opportunities ·    Better and more efficient water and energy use

·    Synergies for waste heat

·    Implications for local businesses, entrepreneurs, health

·    Potential to reduce risk associated with long supply chains

·    Political capital and local development zones (LEP)

 

A follow-up workshop with ‘local’ stakeholders was held for the city of Oxford in December. Many participants were small-scale food manufacturers and retailers and some opportunities were identified. The concerns raised were essentially about business aspects (e.g. space for new premises and markets) rather that energy and water issues.

 

workshop audience oxford

 

While it is clear that RDM presents many opportunities, there are also significant challenges to be overcome. There are good examples of RDM, however, they tend to be for high value or ‘niche’ products, and we can use these to learn lessons about scaling-up. There are also examples of failed case studies which similarly can be analysed for learning.

RDM would not be appropriate for all foods, so it is important to identify for which foods, and where, this approach makes sense. Clearly not all ‘centralised’ food manufacture is bad, so how do we decide when RDM would be a viable alternative? Fundamentally, we need a method to establish what constitutes ‘sensible’ local products, that would be appropriate for RDM consideration.