Food chains or food webs?

The choice is becoming starker as we learn more about the impacts of industrial food delivered through long food chains. Do we want to support industrial food delivered through long food chains or sustainable food systems closer to home? This is the first of a series of extracts from Our Food Story. But first, here is Pete Russell personalising the shift from a long food chain to a food web advocate.

Food chains are the food system manifestation of supply chains. Globalised food chains are long food chains (LFC), while localised food chains are short food chains (SFC).

Short food chains

SFCs generate closer relationships between producers and consumers enabling the re-socialising of food. SFC offer consumers food with known provenance and enhanced quality. Critically, SFCs open opportunities for revitalising rural communities (Marsden, Banks, & Bristow, 2000). Face to face interactions between producers and consumers collapse the power-differences inherent in complex, globalising LFCs. (Feagan, 2007).

A common characteristic, however, is the emphasis upon the type of relationship between the producer and the consumer in these supply chains, and the role of this relationship in constructing value and meaning, rather than solely the type of product itself (Marsden, Banks, & Bristow, 2000, pg 425).

From the 1980s the significance of supply chains in globalised commerce spawned the development of supply chain management disciplines characterised by the linear and sequential metaphor of the chain. Another metaphor is the upstream (supplier) and downstream (customer) characterisation of the supply chain, with its inference of a one-way flow (Sherer, 2005).

As an example, the home garden is an example of a very short food chain. By contrast a fast food multinational importing avocado from Mexico typifies a long food chain.

Shared value

Reconceptualising the supply chain as a value chain shifts the focus from the extraction of value to sharing value. LFCs are typically more extractive. Participants in the value chain, from the producer through to the retailer strive to create value, by finding economies in the value chain and delivering greater value to customers. Some of the created value can be shared among value chain partners. To achieve this, parties in the value chain need to develop trust, learn to collaborate and be more transparent. Purchasers tend to develop longer-term relationships with suppliers rather than pursue the cheapest price.

Susan Sherer (2005) suggests a move from a supply chain focus to value networks (food webs) enabling a fuller expression of the value equation. Reconceptualising the supply chain as a value network shifts the focus from the exchange of goods and services to a broader consideration of relevant elements of sustainability, financial, social and environmental. For example respondents in the Whangarei Growers Market research found value in the “atmosphere”, social contact, in the freshness of the food and availability of organic or spray free food (Bruce, Patrick, & Romer, 2014). In this case, the value network extends to health and health providers, local government and those promoting Whangarei, and those wanting to support local producers and the local economy.

Long food chains and health

The food system, dominated by LFCs has created a food environment deleterious to health.

Currently takeaways and dairies cluster around schools, particularly in the poorest neighbourhoods. In fact there are more fast food outlets and convenience stores (like dairies, whose sales overwhelmingly comprise pies, soft drinks and sweets) in poor areas generally. Primary schools seem to attract more stores, although secondary schools were surrounded by higher levels of unhealthy food advertisements. The upshot of this is that the average child in Auckland has to walk less than 350 metres from the school gate to the nearest dairy, and under 400 metres to the nearest fast food outlet. Given what we know about the impact of sugary, fatty and salty food on the developing brain, it is hard not to draw a comparison with drug lords targeting the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society to get them hooked. It reminds you of the stated goal of one of the largest cola bottlers in the world, articulated in the 1990s, to ensure that there was cola for sale within 100 metres of every consumer on earth (Morgan & Simmons, 2013).

Coca Cola’s marketers aspire to make their brand even more ubiquitous. “Through the stories we tell, we will provoke conversations and earn a disproportionate share of popular culture” (Forward Marketing, 2012).

Marketers are now using the fragrance of food to attract consumers adding the olfactory channel to the audio and visual (Michail, 2015).

The environment influences people’s diet. For example, Inuit eat a lot of Arctic wildlife. From a young age, most of the food children are exposed to in the media is nutritionally deficient. A 2007 study of television advertising in New Zealand found that 66% of food advertisements featured high fat, salt and sugar foods (Jenkin, Wilson, & Hermanson, 2009). A U.S. study found that 3 to 5 year olds “have emerging knowledge of brands that are relevant to their lives”. In the U.S. four out of five children recognise the McDonald’s brand by the time they are three.

As these children enter the adult world, and they become responsible for preparing food other drivers emerge. In 1953 the first T.V. dinners came on the market in the United States. A U.S survey found a rapidly increasing number of convenience foods entering the market. Sixty-one percent of consumers surveyed indicated that “reduced time” and “less effort” to prepare were the primary reasons for purchasing convenience foods (McAlister & Cornwell, 2010).

Our food environment features prominent brands, promoted by persuasive marketing, and an increasing diet of processed and convenience foods. There may also be an addictive aspect driving consumption. Caroline Davis calls this a “modern and “toxic” food environment and therein the ubiquitous triggers for over-consumption” manifesting binge eating disorders (Davis, 2013).

Trenton Smith (of Otago University) and Attila Tasnádi identify deep capture as the discursive practices of the food industry that shape public opinion in the industry’s favour. They link this to the obesity epidemic (Smith & Tasnádi, 2014).

You can read more from Our Food Story here.


Bruce, P., Patrick, A., & Romer, S. (2014). The Social and Economic Impact of the Whangarei Growers Market. Whangarei: NorthTec. Retrieved from

Davis, C. (2013). From Passive Overeating to ‘Food Addiction’: A Spectrum of Compulsion and Severity. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2013(435027).

Feagan, R. (2007). The place of food: mapping out the ‘local’ in local food systems. Progress in Human Geography, 31(1), 23–42.

Forward Marketing. (2012). Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative Strategy Video – Parts I & II. Retrieved 4 December 2015, from

Jenkin, G., Wilson, N., & Hermanson, N. (2009). Identifying ‘unhealthy’ food advertising on television: a case study applying the UK Nutrient Profile model. Public Health Nutrition, 12(5), 614–623.

Marsden, T., Banks, J., & Bristow, G. (2000). Food Supply Chain Approaches: Exploring their Role in Rural Development. Socilogia Ruralis, 40(4), 424–438.

McAlister, A. R., & Cornwell, T. B. (2010). Children’s brand symbolism understanding: Links to theory of mind and executive functioning. Psychology and Marketing, 27(3), 203–228.

Michail, N. (2015). Am I being manipulated? Inside multisensory eating experiences. Retrieved 4 December 2015, from

Morgan, G., & Simmons, G. (2013). Appetite for Destruction. Public Interesting Publishing Limited. Retrieved from

Sherer, S. A. (2005). From supply-chain management to value network advocacy: implications for e-supply chains. Supply Chain Management, 10(2), 77–83.

Smith, T. G., & Tasnádi, A. (2014). The Economics of Information, Deep Capture, and the Obesity Debate. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, aat113.



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