Making provisions: anticipating food emergencies and assembling the food system

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Architecture Planning and Landscape


From animal disease outbreaks, to accidental contamination, food-borne illnesses, and concerns over the provenance or ingredients of foodstuffs, food crises of one form or another are seemingly a regular occurrence. The question that gets asked each time is 'couldn't we have seen this coming?' This project will look at the ways in which those involved in the production, processing, retail, management and governance of food anticipate future problems and develop plans to avoid them or deal with them, through forms of precaution, preparedness and pre-emptive action. We will explore how the increasing amount of information generated about food during its production, and the increasingly sophisticated technologies for generating and managing that information, helps or hinders the anticipation and management of food emergencies. We will also look at how those involved in all aspects of food production, retail and regulation form communities and networks to plan for problems and build make a more resilient food system, and whether certain ways of thinking and acting - and the bodies associated with them - come to dominate efforts to stave off future problems. We will do this by observing anticipatory activities and technologies throughout the food system, and interviewing those who try to develop ways to deal with uncertainty including groups who lobby for changes to food governance, industry bodies and government officials as well as those directly handling foodstuffs. By investigating these issues we will be able to draw out realistic lessons for building a more resilient food system.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?
Beyond the academic community the main direct beneficiaries of this research are any individual and organisation (public and policy sector, private commercial sector, and third sector campaigning and charitable organisations) involved in the regulation and governance of the food system.

The general public is an indirect beneficiary of the research project through the actions of public and policy sector, private commercial sector, and third sector campaigning and charitable organisations.

How will they benefit from this research?
The main impact will be a contribution to the health and wealth of the nation by helping to conceive of a more resilient, safer food system.

Through engagement activities and written findings available through a dedicated project website the direct beneficiaries listed above and indirect beneficiaries will have a greater awareness and access to information on anticipatory actions in the food chain and its management.

The research will identify current gaps in practice concerning the management of food system risks and anticipatory actions and identify examples of best practice. This information could lead to changes in public policy and regulation or reaffirm the efficacy of existing practice, at national and/or local level. This can provide organisations (public and policy sector, private commercial sector, and third sector) will information to engage in informed debate and subsequently manage food system processes. The benefits may also involve commercial innovation in the private sector if gaps in knowledge are identified. The timings of these impacts are likely to occur in the medium to long term after the completion of the research project and dissemination of findings.

The general public will be an indirect beneficiary via the activities of the organisations involved in the food system (potential changes to policy and regulation impacts on food system practices and population health regarding food safety and contamination and trust in food). Any benefit would occur in the long term beyond the life of the project.


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Description 1) Existing terminologies and classifications of anticipation do not describe well the features of anticipation in the food system. Modern food supply chains based around various forms of 'just in time' logistics and management incorporate myriad routine, short term, anticipatory actions, many of which are algorithmic or incorporated into unquestioned best practice. We distinguish this operational anticipation from exceptional anticipation that looks further ahead or aims to engage with problems that fall outside of the normal running of the system. It is possible for any given issue, in a particular organisational context (company, supply chain etc), to move from the exceptional to the operational category: this is a key way in which uncertain futures can be managed.

2) We set out to analyse the ways in which technologies of food monitoring, traceability and information management lead to new anticipatory activities. While it is clear that live tracking and logistical information has led to new forms of operational anticipation within food production and distribution (especially in data sharing arrangements aimed at enabling better inventory management through a supply chain), we found no evidence that these techniques are driving new forms of exceptional anticipation. Commercial barriers to information sharing are one reason for this. These also limit the granularity of information available for national scale contingency planning. A further issue is that information about foodstuff is often secondary to information about practices in the organisations or sites handling food - often in the form of certification and associated audits - for those judging longer term food safety, fraud and supply risks. Food information technologies have not resulted in a step change in managing exceptional futures, but are integrated in various ways into wider anticipatory strategies.

3) Within the strategic approaches to anticipation we have found that 'managed ignorance' of the future is an important feature, in that it defines the boundaries of what kinds of futures and events can and should be anticipated and managed.. This may be either a pragmatic approach to managing of the sheer volume of information available (the sorting of 'signals' to use the terminology of horizon scanning) or a means of limiting liability. This finding opens a range of possible research questions around the wider significance of ignorance in managing uncertainty. It is a cause for concern for regulators, but might also be more positive tactic than it first appears.

4) The idea of the supply chain is significant. It is difficult in practice to trace a material supply chain and the actual materiality sought is dependent on the definition one uses (a fact also encountered by colleagues involved in a parallel project). However, the concept remains a key means by which food systems actors imagine, identify and evaluate threats and risk - either in the wider, systemic sense or thorough more specific analysis in individual organisations. The difficulty in 'fixing' complex supply chains may then be a problem. This is a question for further critical analysis.
Exploitation Route A suggestion has been made by one stakeholder organisation that simply raising awareness of the terminology of anticipation and the various different ways it can operate will be important for many food sector businesses. We will do this via a short report and possible tie ins with trade press.

The broader understanding of anticipation in the food system has been taken into practice by Dr Jeremy Brice. He is now working between the FSA and the LSE to investigate the technologies and practices through which regulatory agencies and private sector governance actors identify food businesses as 'risky', and the ways in which they (and associated practices of information sharing or protection) shape the visibility and governance of risk within the UK food sector. This work will help to inform an ongoing programme of reforms to the delivery of food regulation in the UK.

The key finding of "managed ignorance" gained some traction with regulator stakeholders in the food industry and we will aim to explore this phenomenon further through an interdisciplinary academic seminar as well aiming to keep it visible with food regulators.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description The project was fundamentally exploratory in nature, as a result the initial impact has centred on awareness raising and capacity building. The key findings of the research were fed back to two overlapping stakeholder communities via two events and two distinct reports, each of which has had limited impact to date, but through which the groundwork has been laid for future impact. The first event targeted mainly industry, with representatives from food producers/retailers, industry membership bodies and third-party consultants involved in providing anticipatory services to food businesses. Representatives of relevant government departments (DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency) were also in attendance. Along with key findings of the work a draft set of guidance on anticipation aimed at helping food businesses was provided. The general debate was welcomed, the findings were accepted as valid, but many attendees felt the guidance developed would not be helpful in the form it was presented. Others felt it was worth pursuing in a more introductory format for businesses, as an extended glossary and framing of the issue. The second event involved feedback purely to the Food Standards Agency, who had partnered the ESRC in producing the funding call and maintained contact with the project throughout. The document provided there was an overview the key findings, with a focus on the various strategic approaches to anticipation adopted by food system actors. The work was well received on the day, and the term "managed ignorance" gained traction as highlighting an issue that the FSA needed to be aware of (the term described those actors who manage uncertainty by deliberately limiting the scope of their knowledge and anticipatory actions). Some time after the event we were informed by a member of one of FSA's Science Advisory Committees (a UK academic) that our project had been genuinely well received by FSA as raising important issues. We will follow up on this by providing reminders about the work in the form of short briefing notes to the FSA when academic papers are published. On the capacity building front, the project RA, Dr Jeremy Brice, developed his understanding of the various forms of anticipation in the UK food system in line with the key findings of the project. He also gained knowledge of the various relationships underpinning knowledge transfer between government and industry, and within industry via training and certification/audit bodies and membership organizations. Dr Brice left the project in August 2016 to take a joint post with the London School of Economics and the Food Standards Agency - the key project stakeholder - targeted at developing a risk-based approach to regulation of the food sector (a form of anticipatory governance). The knowledge and expertise developed by Dr Brice during the course of the project led directly to his placement into this role and are put at the heart of regulatory development in the field as a result. We have faced a number of difficulties in generating impact to date. One element of the project - Q-methodology - was intended to provide a basis for rapid impact with policy-makers and regulators, via a succinct characterisation of key discourses of anticipation in the food system. As detailed elsewhere, this failed to generate a viable dataset, thus removing one avenue for opening up dialogue intended to generate impact. This was overcome to an extent by developing further the working categories we had been using during the project and foregrounding these as headline findings. A second difficulty has been the timing of the UK's vote to leave the EU, also noted in our final report. As the food and farming sector is one area of immediate and significant impact, capacity within industry bodies has been directed towards this issue, effectively cutting off key industry contacts who we had hoped to work with in generating further impact. We do still hope to revive these relationships, after we have dealt with the next point. A final point is both a problem for generating quick impact and a potential means to overcome an initial hurdle. The exploratory nature of the project meant that there was always a fairly high degree of uncertainty around what we might find. A key outcome of this type of work is the re-framing of a problematic rather than the provision of straightforward solutions. This can require time for additional reflection beyond the analysis undertaken during the lifetime of the project. Some findings demand an exploration of additional literatures to best contextualise them and raise new questions and suggestions. On the one hand this may have hampered the initial feedback to industry actors, some of whom struggled to see novelty relevant to them (though, as noted, policy and regulatory actors were more open to this). On the other hand, our extended reflection is bringing up new insights as we prepare papers for publication and subject the datasets to new literatures and analytical concepts. We will therefore return to industry actors with a new form of feedback on completion of this post-project phase of the work.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services