Two years ago, at the end of 2021, I fractured my cervicals while on a skiing holiday in France. I found myself paralysed from the neck down.
The first responder on the slopes probably saved my life by immediately placing me in a neck brace. A helicopter flew me to a local hospital, where I spent a week in intensive care. An ambulance then transported me back to Switzerland, where a duo of surgeons pinned my neck back together again. It took nearly one year of physiotherapy for me to recover fully. Still, thanks to the professionalism of everyone along the supply chain – from ski slope to home – I made a complete recovery.
One night, lying in bed in a Swiss hospital, unable to sleep, I counted the number of professionals who contributed to my recovery. There was Gilles, the first responder, the helicopter pilot, the surgeons, the various different types of nurses, administrators, cleaners, cooks, managers, and accountants. I counted more than thirty professions in total. They had all played an important role so far. Later, I would add Eric, my physiotherapist.
I told a friend my happy (in the end) story over lunch. He commented that there are more professions in the agricultural supply chain – bringing food from the field to your home – that were involved in my journey from paralysis to recovery.
Together, we began to count them off; within a few minutes, we had reached more than thirty – excluding all those involved in growing and harvesting the crop in the first place. We were both amazed that there were so many.
When people think about the agricultural supply, they concentrate on the role of traders. Few think about the people who organise moving the crop to a port, inspect its quality, elevate it onto a vessel, charter a ship, organise port logistics, insure and finance it, ensure its documents are fit for payment, manage the price risk, unload and process the cargo at destination, and account and audit the process.
To that, you must add the market analysts, price reporters, sustainability experts, HR and PR professionals, lawyers and arbitrators (for when things go wrong), NGOs, journalists, and procurement specialists who keep the big food companies supplied. (Don’t forget the CEOs responsible for the whole process.) Not all those professions are unique to the food supply chain, but they all play a vital role. The system would grind them to a halt without them.
“You should write their stories,” my friend told me.
I thought over his suggestion. My background is in the sugar and biofuels markets, and, in my previous books, I have enormously enjoyed expanding my horizons to the grains, oilseeds, and coffee markets. But I have always focused on the merchants who trade those commodities, never on the support personnel who make the supply chain work. I didn’t know anything, for example, about container logistics, arbitration, or HR.
The more I thought about the project, the more challenging it seemed. I realised it would be a long journey of discovery into unknown fields and professions. (Little did I realise just how long the journey would be!)
“You should write their stories,” my friend insisted, “because people have little idea how food ends up on their plates and all the people who make it happen. And when they do have some idea, they are often critical.”
His comments reminded me of a conversation I once had with a friend’s wife – a retired nurse – over dinner. She accused me of “getting between the farmer and the consumer – driving down prices for the farmer and driving up prices for the consumer.”
At no stage would anyone claim that the more than thirty professions in my medical recovery had pushed up the price of my treatment or pushed down the revenue of the doctors – or that they were “getting between the doctor and the patient.”
I wondered why people are so critical of the supply chain that brings food to their table but rarely critical of the supply chain that brings people from sickness to health. People love doctors and nurses but hate (maybe that is too strong a word) agriculture commodity merchants, even though they are equally essential in feeding and keeping us healthy.
Perhaps it is because most of us now live in cities but still want to feel connected to the countryside and begrudge the agribusinesses who weaken that connection. Maybe it is because people do not understand how the food supply chain works. (As with all my books, I hope this latest addition will help correct that.)
Farming is by far the toughest part of the food supply chain. Despite growing up on a farm (a smallholding), I do not feel qualified to write about agriculture itself. I will leave it to others. Instead, I will start my journey after the harvest.
I hope you enjoy reading about it as I did writing about it.
This is a brief extract from my forthcoming book, Commodity Professionals – The People Behind the (Ag) Trade
PS I have interviewed more than fifty professionals for this book, but I still have another dozen to interview. My journey is approaching its destination, but I still have some way to go. So please be patient. In the meantime, I would like to say an enormous “thank you” to everyone who has so far contributed their time and expertise to the project and to those who continue to do so.
PPS I tried and failed to find the source of the image that I used in this blog. I apologise (and congratulate you) if you created it and ask if you could contact me so that I can credit you – and retrospectively ask your permission to use it.
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