Global Food Trade Network is becoming far too complex

More efforts ought to be undertaken in order to understand and track the system of international food trade, say researchers who cautioned that the global food network is becoming far too complex.

As the global community goes beyond 7 billion, and with more demands for food to rise by at least a half by 2030, the sustainable production and distribution of food must be balanced against the need to ensure the chemical and microbiological safety.

According to a ‘rigorous’ study by the international food-trade network (IFTN), the network is vulnerable to the fast spreading of contaminants, reporting on the connection of known food poisoning outbreaks and the centrality of countries on the network.

Dr Jozsef Baranyi, from the Institute of Food Research in the U.K., said: “Using UN databases, here we show that the international agro-food trade network (IFTN)… has evolved into a highly heterogeneous, complex supply-chain network.

“Graph theoretical analysis and a dynamic food flux model show that the IFTN provides a vehicle suitable for the fast distribution of potential contaminants but unsuitable for tracing their origin”.

The research outlines the incredibly complicated network that is circulating around a core group of seven countries with each of them trading with more than two thirds of the world’s nations.

As Baranyi and his colleagues say, the IFTN is capable of spreading a foodborne contaminant very efficiently since any two countries in the IFTN have only two degrees of separation on the network.

The system is designed to hide the contaminant’s origins once it has been compromised since so many network paths run through the central nodes.

The researchers said: “In particular, we show that high values of node betweenness and vulnerability correlate well with recorded large food poisoning outbreaks.

“During a food poisoning outbreak the first and most important task is to identify the origin of the contamination… Delays in this task can have severe consequences for the health of the population and incur social, political and economical damages with international repercussions”.

One example is the consequences of the three-week delay in trying to identify the origin of the E. Coli contamination in Germany in June 2011.

They say that the rising complexity of the system will go on to having longer delays in tracing the origin of poisoning outbreaks or the source of contaminants in the future.

The team added: “Note that our study does not predict an increase in the number of food poisoning cases but that, when it happens, there will be inevitable delays in identifying the sources due to the increasingly interwoven nature of the IFTN… That is,, even if food contamination was less frequent… its dispersion/spread is becoming more efficient”.

The research team also noticed recent calls for an interdisciplinary approach “to monitor, understand, and control food trade flows as it becomes an issue no longer affecting just single countries, but the global livelihood of the human population”.

They had recommended that such a approach would be better in terms of understanding the international food trade network and “especially if it is broken down into time-scales, food types and their interdependencies”.

They added: “Such an interdisciplinary approach is entirely within the means of the state-of-the art of science and technology, if supported by detailed and systematic data collection”.

The team also said that international organisations, including the United Nations and the European Union, are vital for any effort or attempt to gather and monitor data on the network.

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