Money doesn’t grow on trees and food doesn’t just appear on plates. While we can still wish for the former, many are beginning to recognize the latter. In recent years, terms like “farm to table” have become more popular as eaters have increasingly become more aware that food typically travels far and wide before ending up as a satisfying bite.
These considerations beg a question: What is the food supply chain?
We’ll answer exactly that, and elaborate on the seafood supply chain in the US market.
What is a Food Supply Chain?
Simply put, a food supply chain is the journey a food product takes from farm to fork. It includes several different steps, like production, processing, distribution, retail, consumption, and finally, disposal.
When we think of food supply chain problems, there’s one that comes to the forefront: transparency.
Because the fruits in your fridge and the grains in your cupboard go through several different stages before they end up in your home, it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly what each of these stages entail, as well as any social or environmental problems they might be responsible for.
For this reason, many consumers are beginning to pay more attention to how and where their food’s been produced. In fact, a 2019 survey found that 94% of consumers said they would be more loyal to a brand with a totally transparent supply chain.
Some Reasons Why You Should Care About Your Food Supply Chain
Roughly 50 years ago, our food system looked vastly different. Most of the food was produced and consumed locally, and many eaters had a deeper understanding of food made it to a plate.
But now, with the US food supply chain specifically, the food system is extremely complex and involves many inputs, processes, actors, outputs, and flows. The supply typically begins at a farm or some other source of input supply (like a fishery). From there, handlers, wholesalers, manufacturers, buyers, retailers, and consumers are involved.
If we think about the journey food might take, we can think of it as complex food flows, connections between all of the different actors. In the US, researchers have discovered more than 9,869,000 different links.
Because of its complexity, many of us are disconnected from many steps in the supply chain. We may be unfamiliar with the fact that our food is oftentimes associated with socially and environmentally problematic practices.
As an example, the US food industry is worth billions of dollars, but very little of that trickles down to essential farmworkers—those who spend long days in the California sunshine and roughly make just $10 an hour.
When we bite into a home-cooked meal, we may not realize that many agricultural regions are responsible for hypoxic “dead zones,” where areas of water are without oxygen and become inhabitable for marine life.
We may be unaware that many of the crops we eat most (wheat, corn, soy, etc.) are contributing to the fact that we’ve lost 75 billion metric tons of soil due to erosion—and combined with biodiversity losses and soil depletion, we’re quickly losing the amount of land suitable for agriculture.
These are just a few of the reasons why it’s important to know where food comes from and how it’s produced! These considerations are far more important for animal-based foods, especially seafood.
Common Seafood Supply Chain in the US
By value, seafood is one of the world’s most traded food commodities. Like other food products, seafood has a similar supply chain that begins with the producer (a fisher) and ends with a consumer.
In between, usually there’s a scattering of aggregators, primary processors, buyers, traders, wholesalers, dealers, secondary processors, distributors, and transporters. Often, this will take place in several different countries—especially considering that more than 90% of the seafood we eat in the US is imported.
Because seafood can travel to several different locations and actors throughout the supply chain, there’s a significant possibility that it’s been associated with fraud, slavery, corruption, or illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing—which is commonly associated with bycatch and ecosystem degradation.
It’s no wonder seafood-buying alternatives have become popular in recent years.
Getting Fresher Seafood By Cutting Out the Middlemen
There’s been a recent shift to bypass the supply chain by getting seafood directly from the fishers. Direct trade (D2C) seafood can be considered one of the few ways to circumvent these complex and often-problematic supply chains.
Less steps in the supply chain often mean more transparency, which is also why people are increasingly shopping at farmer’s markets and signing up for community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, where food is sent directly from the farms themselves.
When it comes to seafood, not only do direct sales support more transparency in the seafood supply chain, but it also generally provides producers (fishers) with better prices and us (eaters) with fresher seafood! At the same time, this is one of the best ways to ensure fair, local (at least the same country), seasonal, and sustainable seafood. Oftentimes, it’s cheaper than supermarket seafood, too.
Seafood Supply Chain from a Sustainability Standpoint
What direct trade seafood is doing right is many of the things the conventional seafood supply chain is doing wrong.
A lack of transparency and problems with traceability are the biggest challenges of the seafood supply chain, particularly because they often indirectly encourage unsustainable and unethical fishing practices.
Because it’s extremely difficult for actors towards the end of the supply chain to understand what occurred during earlier stages of the supply chain, nefarious and fraudulent practices may exist without anyone (including the consumer) being aware of it.
Some of these include IUU fishing, species substitution, undeclared catches, modern day slavery, and animal welfare.
Over the past several years, several reports have indicated that fraudulent practices are very common in the seafood supply chain, particularly because the problems with transparency are coupled with the fact that seafood consumption has increased considerably.
So what can be done to remedy some of these problems?
Like it’s being used for other highly-traded food commodities (like produce and coffee), digitalization and blockchain technology has emerged as one of the best solutions to increase transparency and traceability, collect data for the whole supply chain, better understand fish welfare and ecological impacts, and ensure safer conditions for fishers and workers.
What is blockchain? It’s a ledger that is decentralized and can contain information to be recorded and shared. Data will be stored based on a combination of QR and RFID codes on the vessels, at the dock, and within the various processing facilities.
Eventually, consumers will be able to scan something on the seafood packaging and know exactly where the fish has been, what fishing methods were used, and have peace of mind that the fish was legally caught with no oppressive conditions involved.While trials and projects have just begun, it will likely take some time before consumers will be able to access transparently produced seafood. Until then, buying seafood products like Alaskan Salmon Co. directly from the fishers is the best way to support a tasty and transparent seafood supply chain.