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Supply chain diversification can help cities avoid food shocks

Supply chain diversification can help cities avoid food shocks
Diversifying food supply chains is crucial to preventing food shocks in big cities, according to new research. Photo by mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

July 7 (UPI) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of many of the global economy's supply chains, both industrial and agricultural.

But even after the global pandemic subsides, researchers expect climate change to continue to cause problems for food supply chains.

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To cope, the authors of a new paper -- published Wednesday in the journal Nature -- recommend cities diversify their sourcing of food.

The research team from Penn State and Northern Arizona University developed a model to quantify the relationship between supply chain diversification and the risk of urban food shocks.

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"The model is simple, operationally useful and hazard-agnostic," researchers wrote in the study. "Using this method cities can improve their resistance to food supply shocks with policies that increase the food supply chain diversity."

To build the model, scientists studied the effects of droughts and other production shocks across the Great Plains and the Western U.S. on the supply and movement of four different food sources, including crops, live animals, feed and meat.

"Cities fundamentally depend on other regions for the provision of food and other basic resources," study co-author Alfonso Mejia said in a press release.

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"We looked at food because it interconnects with other critical regional systems -- water and energy -- and food production is inherently linked to climate variability and change," said Mejia, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State.

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"We wanted to apply basic lessons from the natural world -- biodiverse ecosystems are more resistant to shocks, learned through millennia of adapting to disruption of all kinds -- to our human food systems," Mejia said.

The analysis showed cities with greater supply chain diversity -- sourcing a variety of food types from different places -- were less likely to experience food shocks.

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Conversely, cities that sourced most of their food from adjacent regions were more likely to experience food shocks.

However, researchers found distance wasn't the sole factor influencing food shock resiliency. Simulations showed food shock risk is influenced by location, climate, supply network characteristics and levels of urbanization.

Whether a city relies on sources nearby or faraway, if cities source food from a small number of regions with similar climates, they are more likely to experience food shocks.

Food shocks can cause shortages and price spikes, market disruptions that are likely to most affect people and families living below the poverty line.

Researchers developed the risk analysis model by adapting a framework typically used to gauge the threat of 100-year floods. To inform their model, researchers sourced supply chain and food shock data from 284 designated metropolitan areas in the United States.

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"The idea was to provide cities with an operational way for quantifying resilience and, ultimately, supporting action that can boost resilience through supply chain diversity," Mejia said.

"In principle, with our approach, a city can figure out what their supply chain diversity is and what protection against food shock they have. If they decide there is not enough protection, then they can figure out, based in part on other cities' experience, how much diversity in the food chain they need to offer sufficient protection," Mejia said.

Food shocks can cause shortages and price spikes, market disruptions that are likely to most affect people and families living below the poverty line.

Researchers said they hope their new risk analysis model will inspire cities to diversity food supply chains and protect their most vulnerable citizens.

"There are several U.S. government programs that relate to food -- the breakfast, lunch, afterschool and nutrition assistance programs," Mejia said. "These programs may offer an untapped opportunity for diversifying supply chains and building resilience."

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