The Food Supply Chain

The Food Supply Chain

The food supply chain comprises all the stages that food products go through, from production to consumption. Nowadays, food is transported over longer distances, across continents. As the supply chain has become longer and more fragmented, us consumers have become more and more disconnected from the source of our food. It also means that as food gets lost or wasted at every stage of the chain, a longer chain leads to more and more overall food waste.

A recent study has put a number to the amount of money that is spent on the production of food that ends up going to waste. All that delicious, edible food that goes to waste, costs 1.2 trillion dollars (BCG, 2018)...which is the same amount as you would spend building 1,066 Golden Gate Bridges (in today's money)!

Let’s go through some basics about the supply chain:

First of all, import and export

When a product is brought into a country (or jurisdiction) it’s imported and when it goes the other way, the product is exported.

The food that ends up on your plate isn’t from round the corner, food travels and it travels far! Kiwis, for example, have mostly come from New Zealand, so they’ve traveled around 18.678km to get to some supermarket shelves (based on the distance from New Zealand to Brussels) (World Trade Map, 2018).

Here’s another example, in Ecuador they grow a lot of bananas, way more than they need for their population alone. So what do they do? They sell (export) their bananas via banana producers to other countries. Ecuador is the country that exports the most bananas in the world, in 2018 they exported bananas worth a total of 13,193,281,000 US Dollars (World Trade Map, 2018).

The banana is often a year old and has traveled about 9.637km before it ends up on the table (distance from New Zealand to Brussels). 

The Different Stages of the Supply Chain

The food supply chain varies at times. It will depend on whether the food has to be processed or whether it's ready to eat, whether the farmer is supplying the produce locally or sending it away to be packaged and transported and so on.

However, the simplest way to explain the food supply chain is to break it into five stages - a journey from farm to fork. By doing this, it's also possible to measure and evaluate why food is lost and wasted through these different stages.


This is where the food is grown, cultivated or developed. Each producer is restricted by local and international guidelines, laws and legislation in regards to how food should appear and the quality standards that the product has to live up to. This can include shape, colour and/or size. In the EU for instance, the following fresh products face rigid market standards that mean producers can only sell the ones that meet these requirements (EU, 2011):

  • apples
  • citrus fruit
  • kiwifruit
  • lettuces, curled-leaved and broad-leaved endives
  • peaches and nectarines
  • pears
  • strawberries
  • sweet peppers
  • grapes
  • tomatoes

Producers include: farmers, animal farms, food manufacturers.  

Handling & storage

Once the product has been harvested, it’s time for it to be washed and prepared. The product might not be ready to eat, depending on what it is. Bananas are still green when harvested because they ripen in strictly controlled environments through the rest of their journey to the supermarket. Check out the video and see what a strawberry goes through from farm to fork. 

Use it to talk to the students about where does the food come from? Ask the students to consider the following questions for the video:

  • Where do you think the strawberry comes from?
  • Why is it being wasted?

  • Have you ever tried something similar at home?   

Let’s also have a look at the potato. Potatoes are cleaned and prepared before being packed. Some potatoes go directly into bags and then get loaded and transported to storage facilities before they head to distribution, while other potatoes go to a processing factory where they are made into chips, crisps, potato salads and such.

This happens at:

Processing & packaging

There are many requirements which food products have to meet and sometimes these standards are in place to make packaging easier. Some of them are set by the EU parliament and local governments, but the retailers also have high demands. This is simply because the supermarkets want to sell the very best looking produce and even though a crooked cucumber tastes just as good as a straight one, retailers think that the consumer won’t buy them. 

At this stage, you also have the meat processing plants. This is where the animals are sent from farmers to meat processing plants. Here the animals get slaughtered, butchered and in some cases processed and made into bacon, salami and such.

All processed food goes through a processing plant, including:

  • Convenience food (pies, soups, ready meals and such)
  • Cake and biscuits
  • Meat products (bacon, sausage, cold cuts, minced meat)
  • Drinks (dairy products, soft drinks)
  • Bread
  • Salads
  • Cereals
  • Butter and cheese
  • Snacks (chocolate bars, chips)

Not all processed food is a bad choice. Some foods need processing to make them edible and safe. Like milk, where you have to remove harmful bacteria through pasteurisation, or oil, where the seeds are pressed into the different kinds of oil we know so well.

Distribution & retail

The longest journeys usually happen at this stage, when the food travels from its packaging plant to its retail destination, mostly supermarkets. Most food is transported by ship, but some products are transported by air, and that is the most carbon-heavy way of doing it.

The distance that a food item is transported, from producer to consumer, is called a food mile. We use this to measure the environmental footprint of food production, which is called the "foodprint".

What can you do to reduce the foodprint? Try to buy local and seasonal! 

Before food reaches the consumption stage, 78% of the total food waste compared in weight has occurred. This means that 22% happens at consumer level (BCG, 2018). 


The last and final stage of the food supply chain is consumption. This is where food is, hopefully, eaten. There are many reasons why food gets wasted at home, but luckily, there are a lot of things we can do to prevent this. Check out the six tips from the households pillar and see what you can do to reduce food waste at home. 

A lot of time, effort and resource go into the food that we get in front of us. The more we understand that the more respect we will have for it and hopefully the less we will waste it.