Food re-independence: Emerging thoughts

8th April 2020
For many of us, this is the first time we have experienced the reality of empty shelves in the supermarket. After the governments advice to stay-indoors and only buy essentials, stockpiling commenced across Europe, exposing the very fragile food supply chains.

Our trade-dependencies have become commonplace in our food imports, where we have been dependent on global suppliers to deliver food to different regions. As the crisis has deepened, we have seen our supply chains working over-time to deliver food to cities globally. They are resulting in empty shelves. Why is that happening now? Transportation links that carry goods across countries have become strained. Shipping companies like Maersk have closed their operations due to the risk of staff not being able to enter countries. Airlines have grounded planes cutting air freight capacity. Movement of trucks across borders has become complicated due to the restriction of movement. Some countries like Kazakhstan temporarily banned shipments of buckwheat, rye flour, carrots and potatoes in March because the government was worried about their domestic supply (no longer blocked). On a long-term perspective, Europe might be hit harder due to the reliance of workers from other European countries at harvest. Often countries are set-up to be dependent on food coming in from other regions.


Additionally, market specialisation has over the years created mono-cropping in agriculture, where economies of scale will turn whole landscapes into one or a few types of crops. Unfortunately, this has also created risk amongst the system. From an ecological perspective, mono-crops as bananas – i.e. Cavendish – have been hugely successful in addressing global demands. They ensure consistent characteristics (taste and appearance), made possible by each banana being a “clone” of the first breed of Cavendish. This mono-crop focus becomes a risk when a fungi or disease attacks the crop sometimes extinguishing the whole species. Some countries have created food reserves to mitigate the risk of running low of produce. As an example, China has formed a strategic pork reserve that helps mitigate the risk of running low of pork. This year in December, due to low stock, they released 10000 tons of pork from its central reserves to ensure stability in the country before their big celebrations around Chinese New Year.


What does this tell us? Firstly, the food system in many ways can be seen as fragile systems, which easily can break down after crises or minor inconveniences in the supply chain. Countries are very dependent on imports from others. We are all trying to take care of our domestic markets, which, more often than not, do not have food self-sufficiency. Countries across Europe have long been dependent on food from other parts of the world – Europe and beyond. Norway has one of the lowest self-sufficiency scores ranking below 50%, and countries like Sweden are not even self-sufficient on carrots according to TT. Other countries that might be seen as agricultural superpowers have the same issues, in Italy, which has exports from some primary agriculture produce still is not entirely self-sufficient for their domestic market. In terms of home production, the UK is around 60% self-sufficient in food overall, and about 74% self-sufficient in the types of food that can be grown here. Self-sufficiency score in Sweden is down to 50% according to LRF compared to Finland, where it is 80%.


What has Finland done differently? Agriculture in Finland has been characterised by a northern climate (often not equal to agriculture) and self-sufficiency in most major agricultural products. Finland according to Magnus Hakenstad, from Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies for New York Times states that: “Finland is the prepper nation of the Nordics, always ready for a major catastrophe or a World War III.” As a country, they have always had a vulnerability in their supply chain as the trade goes through the Baltic Sea. Therefore create mitigation strategies that plan for risk in the supply chain. According to the same article, Finland has the best inventories across medical supplies, but also oil, grains, agricultural tools and raw materials to make ammunition. Additionally, the government has planned for self-sufficiency promoting agriculture as an essential role for young adults and identifying gaps in their food supply chain. As an example, they realised that they did not have enough plant-based protein self-sufficiency and have now put new plans in action that use grains, grass, fisheries, insects and cellular agriculture as sources of protein in the production of both food and feed, according to a new report by VTT. It can teach us to focus on the long-term, plan for adversity and risks, and to be flexible with what might be seen as future food.


As this challenge is becoming more apparent, we are seeing a renewed focus on building on domestic self-sufficiency in food supplies, such as in Finland. These are substantial strategic changes that not only need to take in current consideration needs of food products but also about those that might emerge over the next decade. However, there are also other reframes that can be helpful in re-imaging and re-addressing the food system, such as:

  • Reframing waste as wealth: At the College, and beyond there is a multitude of projects that explore how we might be able to cut food waste more efficiently. From better packaging to utilising waste better. Today, the amount of food wasted in the UK throws away 6.6 million tonnes of household food waste. For those cities that still get waste, we could reframe it into compost that could be re-distributed to individuals growing their own in the cities.
  • Integrated into the city: As we see borders close due to the COVID-19 outbreak. There is an opportunity to imagine food systems that are closer to the city; an example is Growing Underground that farms lettuce under the streets of Clapham. According to the urbanist Jane Jacobs: “Both in the past and today, the separation commonly made, dividing city commerce and industry from rural agriculture, is artificial and imaginary. The two do not come down through two lines of descent. Rural work — whether that work is manufacturing brassieres or growing food — is city work transplanted.” Perhaps, the desire to create smaller farms in the city (and underground) can help to mitigate some off the shocks to the supply chain.
  • Functional diversity: We can also look at reversing the mono-crop movement and create better resistance in crops by creating functional diversity. An assemblage of species allows much broader ecosystem services with high functional and response diversity. It means to explore hereditary crops that are currently part of the plant genetic resource, there are many organisations doing this, such as Irish Seed Savers Association that maintains the country’s public seed bank with over 600 non-commercially available varieties of seed.

The big question in farming is how we build a sense of anti-fragility into agriculture and our supply chains. It might just mean that we need to have a more ecologically minded perspective understanding the eco-system services that exist and how we best can create resilience. We may be seeing a re-independence of domestic farming culture.

We believe that working with a future perspective can help us plan and mitigate risk in the system. What are your thoughts on the future of food self-sufficiency? If you want to read more about what Imperial College London academics are doing on food security, please see our Centre for Translational Nutrition and Food Research. 

This article has been written by Imperial Tech Foresight and does not represent the academic views of the College.