The meaning of manufacturing

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Julian Cottee is working on the food feasibility project for the Local Nexus Network at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), University of Oxford.
Julian Cottee is working on the food feasibility project for the Local Nexus Network at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), University of Oxford.


What is the difference between food manufacturing and food processing?

It might seem like a minor detail, but in this blog I will try to show why it is important for the Local Nexus Network project to clearly lay out the nature of the relationship between these two interrelated terms.


The processing of food is age-old

From an evolutionary perspective, the processing of foods is one of the hallmarks of human life. One influential theory argues that it is our ancestors’ mastery of cooking with fire that facilitated the evolution of our own larger, distinctly human brains, by freeing up time and resources that would have otherwise been spent foraging for, eating and digesting raw foods. There are many examples of the importance of food processing to human evolution, nutrition, society and culture. For instance the processing of otherwise toxic cassava has allowed this drought-resilient plant to become a food security staple across much of the world. Processing is a catchall term that encompasses all of the diverse practices through which we transform raw materials into food that we eat.


Woman pounding cassava for fufu, Central African Republic
Woman pounding cassava for fufu, Central African Republic. (Wikipedia public domain image)

Manufacturing is modern

Manufacturing, however, refers to something more specific, and indeed, to something particularly modern. The woman pounding cassava in her village in the Central African Republic is certainly processing food, but she is not ‘manufacturing’ it. Indeed, the verb to manufacture is defined as to ‘make (something) on a large scale using machinery’. Manufacturing is essentially tied up with the idea of industrialisation – of using technology to make things faster, on a larger scale, with fewer people. Ironically the origin of the word manufacture has the opposite root, literally meaning ‘made by hand’, from the Latin manu factum – and indeed back in the 16th century manufacturing would have been carried out by an artisan in a workshop. That the resonance of the word has changed so much over just a few hundred years is a reminder of the massive transformations that human economies and societies have undergone since the industrial revolution – and a reminder of the changes in the food system that have occurred as part of this.



Complex, composite products

There is one further aspect that needs attention to fully understand food manufacturing as a phenomenon; that is, its complexity. Food processing can refer to relatively simply transformations of raw materials. For example, a rice hulling machine removes the layers of indigestible chaff from around the edible grain. These processing operations do not fit our idea of manufacturing in the normal sense because they are not creating a new ‘product’, but instead simply preparing an agricultural crop for consumption or further processing. The word manufacturing properly applies to those cases where new products are created, involving a substantial transformation of raw materials, or the combination of multiple ingredients. So while milling wheat grains into flour might be described as simply processing, when water, yeast and salt are added, and the mix is baked into bread at factory scale, it can certainly be considered manufacturing. The preparation of complex, composite food products like chocolate biscuits or ready-made pizzas, which have many ingredients and multiple stages in their production, is a good example of food manufacturing.


Factory making glutinous rice balls in Zhengzhou, China. Creative Commons license
Factory making glutinous rice balls in Zhengzhou, China.
Creative Commons license


Rise of the robots

The significance of the distinction between the processing of food (a general class of transformations applied to raw materials) and the manufacturing of food (the large-scale, mechanised creation of relatively complex food products) is to be found in the incredible rise of manufacturing over the 20th century and into the 21st. The food economy, and the way that food is thought about and consumed, have been changed enormously by manufacturing, with far reaching consequences. For instance:

  • Economies of scale in food manufacture mean that food is cheaper than ever before.
  • It is partly the replacement of labour in the home – long hours spent cooking and preparing meals – with machines in factories, that has facilitated the emancipation of women from domestic tasks.
  • Because the economics and psychology of manufactured food favours cheap, bulk ingredients that can be produced at scale (e.g. refined sugar, soy, palm oil etc.) manufacturing drives agricultural transformations and monocultures.
  • The need for manufactured foods to have long shelf lives has led to the widespread use of preservatives, some of which have been implicated in long-term health risks.
  • On the other hand, food safety and hygiene standards tend to be extremely high for manufactured foods, reducing more immediate risks such as food poisoning.
  • The length and complexity of supply chains has grown, meaning the origins of ingredients can be hard to trace, as in the 2013 horsemeat scandal.
  • As food manufacturing technologies become more sophisticated, processes are likely to become increasingly automated and robotised, leading to a reduction in the number of jobs in the food industry.

The list could go on…


Redistributed manufacturing… or processing?

What does all this mean for the Local Nexus Network? The project’s stated concern with redistributed manufacturing rather than processing implies that there should be a focus on the former. However, in my view, given the aims of the project, the lens should rest equally on both manufacturing and processing, i.e. any transformation of any kind that takes place in between primary production and the sale of the food to consumers. I also suggest that while it must be acknowledged that the majority of food consumed in the UK is processed or manufactured at large scale using machines, food that is processed on small scale involving higher levels of manual labour should not be totally out of the frame. By studying the full range of ways in which food is processed prior to consumption, the question of the social, environmental and economic consequences of different scales, locations and technologies can be most fully explored.