The Future Of

The Agribusiness Supply Chain | Dr Elizabeth Jackson

Episode Summary

Bare supermarket shelves have become a familiar sight in recent years, following a series of disruptions to the agribusiness sector.

Episode Notes

Bare supermarket shelves have become a familiar sight in recent years, following a series of disruptions to the agribusiness sector.

In this episode, Jessica is joined by Dr Elizabeth Jackson, the non-executive director of Agribusiness Global Allies Limited and of Sheep Producers Australia, to discuss what we can learn from these disruptions and how they could inform opportunities for improvement in the supply chain.

She also addresses the latest figures from the United Nations stating that 1.3 billion tons of food – a third of all food produced globally – goes to waste and how consumer attitudes need to shift to address this challenge. 

Impact of COVID-19, panic buying and floods [00:58]

Mitigating risks to the supply chain [04:43]

Implementing new technologies, such as fresh fruit and vegetable industry innovations and DEXA (Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry) for the meat industry [07:33]

Addressing food waste: what is our responsibility as consumers? [14:59]

Dr Jackson’s research journey and challenges [22:06]

Learn more

Curtin University: Next steps for digital agriculture in Australia

AgWatchers podcast: Capturing beyond the farm gate value

Curtin University: Bachelor of Agribusiness

ICFO: Food waste by country: who’s the biggest waster?

Connect with our guest

Dr Elizabeth Jackson is a Senior Lecturer in Curtin University’s School of Management and Marketing, a non-executive director of Agribusiness Global Allies Limited and of Sheep Producers Australia, and a visiting scholar at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College.

She has particular expertise in supply chain management, procurement, distribution, food and agribusiness systems.

Dr Jackson’s Curtin staff profile

Dr Jackson’s LinkedIn profile

Dr Jackson’s Twitter profile

Curtin University: Agriculture and Environment research area

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Behind the scenes team

Jessica Morrison, Host

Anita Shore, Executive Producer

Annabelle Fouchard, Producer

Daniel Jauk, Episode Researcher and Editor

Zoe Taylor, Episode Recordist

Alexandra Eftos, Assistant Producer

Amy Hosking, Social Media.


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Episode Transcription

Jessica Morrison: 00:00 This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.

Jessica Morrison: 00:09 I'm Jessica Morrison. Bare supermarket shelves have become a familiar site in Australia following a series of disruptions to its agribusiness sector, including labour shortages, panic buying, lockdowns and floods. In this episode, I was joined by Dr. Elizabeth Jackson, a senior lecturer in Curtin University's School of Management and Marketing, and a non-executive director of two organisations: Agribusiness Global Allies Limited, and Sheep Producers Australia.

Jessica Morrison: 00:38 We chatted about the effect of recent disruptions on the agribusiness supply chain, how new technologies could help to improve the effectiveness of agribusiness systems, how to address food waste and Liz's own research journey. If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the show notes.

Jessica Morrison: 00:58 Okay, Liz. In what ways have COVID-19 and climate change disrupted the agribusiness supply chain?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 01:05 Thanks, Jess. This is a really topical question. They're big issues so let me start first with climate change. Climate change has essentially been what we call a creeping crisis that's really been chipping away at our agri-food supply chains for many years now.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 01:22 But what it's really done, in my opinion, is really shaped the way that food producers, and food processes, and indeed consumers are thinking about what we call ethical consumption. So, really the right ways of producing and consuming foods that we've come to enjoy, the remarkable range of foods that we've come to enjoy. The thing about ethical consumption or responsible consumption is that it's not new. Consumers have been thinking about this for thousands of years, believe it or not. If you think about the Hindu religion and how they don't consume beef. Vegetarianism actually emerged from Manchester in the early 1800s, so responsible consumption isn't by any stretch of the imagination, a new thing.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 02:10 But what climate change has really, to me, brought out in how we're producing foods, processing foods and consuming foods is that we've got issues that are now at the front of our minds that are really new to the suite of concerns. They're issues like things like food miles, carbon footprints, methane emissions and these types of issues that we're interested in to be able to promote sustainable food supply chain processes.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 02:38 For people who live in high-income societies like Perth, or like in Australia; unfortunately, these issues don't really touch our day-to-day lives and how so many of us choose what we consume. And this is where the second part of your question becomes really interesting about the disruptions that the pandemic has created and it's really these disruptions that have hit us in our day-to-day lives. So, the price of fuel. One day, the price was okay. The next minute, or the next week, it was through the roof and this was really disruptive for our consumption practises, like I say, on a day-to-day basis.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 03:22 The other thing that really hit us in our consumption behaviours was the empty supermarket shelves. So many of us have still got grandparents, or indeed, great grandparents who lived through the Depression and after the war, and we have got big signals about how scary this is. So, it's really these day-to-day issues that, to me, have really heightened disruptions to agribusiness supply chains through COVID. It's been through very, very, very basic issues like the availability of petrol or fuel, for example, in the world, and the availability of commodity products like wheat, for example, that we've really had to stop and think: where are they coming from?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 04:04 But the one thing, to me, that has really highlighted the situation that the pandemic has brought is the need for people in supply chains. One of the issues that's really hit us so hard is the lack of labour to actually bring crops in, to actually make sure inventory is moving through warehouses. We've been trying for so many years to overcome these problems. Miraculous research has gone into ideas like machine learning and artificial intelligence, but what the pandemic has taught us is that people are still at the heart of our business systems and supply chains, and food supply chains are no exception.

Jessica Morrison: 04:43 You touched on my next question around what we can do to mitigate these risks. Do you think that labour really is the number one way that we can mitigate against these risks in the future?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 04:55 Yeah. So, labour has really been at the heart of so many of the situations and the disruptions that we've caused, but the issue is from a global perspective, that despite climate change, despite COVID, we actually have enough food in the world. There is plenty of food in this world to sustain the global population.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 05:17 We have countries and societies that are undernourished, but we also have a growing number of societies that are over-nourished, so societies that are burdened with diet-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity are cases in point. The thing is, there's not a problem with the amount of food we have. It's just badly and unequally distributed. That's the problem. It's a political problem and way beyond the scope of our time today.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 05:54 But for the question of: how do we mitigate these risks? The risks that we're facing pose a bit of a conundrum, believe it or not. The solution is actually to create more fat in our system, more wiggle room in our systems that protect businesses from problems like delivery delays, for example, whether that's because trucks aren't available, because they're in the wrong places, or because there are no drivers for those trucks. The idea is, perhaps, hanging onto more inventory levels than we've hung onto in the past.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 06:29 Over the last 40 years, supply chains have been engineered by incredibly intelligent people to minimise costs, to take any waste or fat out of supply chains and it's this keeping of extra inventory that will get us out of these problems. But at the same time, it's costly and who's going to bear those costs?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 06:53 The other problem is this extra inventory, or this extra fat, or this extra wiggle room can actually result in waste. And of course there is no waste worse than food waste, and it's not something that we ever, ever, ever really want to see. So, somebody somewhere is going to have to pay and inevitably, that's the consumer. If we really want more reliable agri-food supply chains, the consequence is going to be rising costs, I'm afraid. Sorry, not to be the bearer of very good news on that respect! But we've become so spoiled in our choices and what's available to us and there is a trade off, unfortunately.

Jessica Morrison: 07:33 I see how you said your answer would prove problematic. Thinking about the start of the supply chain here, can you describe some of the new technologies that farmers could implement to improve the effectiveness of agribusiness and to ensure a consistent food supply?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 07:51 This is looking into our crystal ball, and looking into the future is something that so many of us are interested in. The overarching problem with agri-food supply chain systems is that, believe it or not, despite all the technology that we've got at our fingertips, we're still dependent on seasons. It's the seasons that we've really got to try to iron out of our supply chains.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 08:13 And there's actually one sector that is doing this really well and really innovatively, and that's the fresh fruit and vegetable sector. They've got some fascinating innovations. The innovation is called "vertical farming". It's actually, in its most extreme examples, is just fascinating in the extreme. Because what's becoming popular in these vertical farms is that they're actually being situated in disused factories or disused train stations, for example, that are fitted out with very sophisticated hydroponic systems where fruits and vegetables are grown. Fresh fruit and vegetables are grown, essentially, on water with nutrients added to them, and using perfectly natural systems.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 08:59 What's really fascinating about these is that, quite often, they have fish as part of the system, whereby the waste from the fish production is actually feeding the plant system, so it's an entirely circular economy, a circular farming system, I should say. This is something that is really doing so well to iron out those seasonal issues in food production and keep food coming to our table, fresh, nutritious food coming to our kitchen tables and our refrigerators. The problem is, I do believe that consumers aren't quite sold on the idea because, apparently, the fresh fruit and veg that comes out of them aren't quite as tasty as what's grown in the soil under more natural conditions. So, where these systems are becoming very popular in Asia and Europe increasing in uptake, but in Australia, we are so, so, so fortunate to have a very, very reliable source of fresh fruit and veg and meat, so we don't have much to worry about, at the moment ourselves.

Jessica Morrison: 10:01 At least there's innovations in place that are helping to iron out those problems, as you say, all those issues that they face. Are there any really great innovations of the agribusiness supply chain internationally that you can think of that countries should be paying more attention to?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 10:19 What we're seeing in terms of innovation is that so much of the innovation we're enjoying to improve the safety and quality and reliability of our food is coming from micro businesses. These micro businesses operate extremely ethically, extremely responsibly, but they don't have the governance baggage that big business has. And they're able to pivot much more quickly to the extremely rapid pace of innovation in agri-food supply chain systems. It's because there are so many of them out there, it's difficult to pinpoint specific innovations.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 10:58 But one innovation that's really impressed me, has come out of the meat industry, is an innovation called DEXA: D-E-X-A. Now, that's an abbreviation for an extremely long-named technology. Essentially, what the technology is able to do, is it's able to read or almost "X-ray", for want of a better expression, the fat, bone, and muscle content of animal carcasses, which is so fantastic because in days gone by, in actually hundreds of years gone by, all we were really able to know about meat quality is once the carcass was processed.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 11:35 But with this innovation, we're actually able to objectively grade the carcass before it's even processed. This is such a fantastic innovation, first of all, for reducing waste, but also contributing to the quantitative measures of our meat systems, to our meat supply chain, to make sure that the right customers are getting exactly the right qualities that they're paying for and that they're chasing. This is a really, really, really interesting innovation that I'm hoping we're going to see in so many more meat processing facilities, not only in Australia but around the world as well.

Jessica Morrison: 12:14 If we can talk a little bit about what it actually is, is it a scanner? How does it operate?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 12:20 Yeah, so for technology luddites like me, it's big. [Laughs.] They're big and they're expensive. Last count I think there was probably less than half a dozen DEXA machines at meat processors in Australia. And I believe the technology that it operates on is a combination of X-ray, which we'd all be familiar with from broken ankles as kids, and MRI technology.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 12:46 So it's almost like a scanner, a cow-size scanner to scan through a carcass and take quantitative measures of meat carcasses on those three characteristics, as I say, muscle, meat and bone, because essentially the most valuable part of a carcass is the meat. We don't want bone, we don't want fat, but obviously they're essential. So, if those good characteristics can be measured, of course, then they can be managed. And that information can be fed back to producers also to minimise their wastes because the last thing you want to be doing is, particularly when grain prices are as high as they are, you don't want to be feeding grain to animals unnecessarily and getting them to be too fat, because that's a waste as well.

Jessica Morrison: 13:30 So, that was my next question is that then this information or the data that they're getting from this innovation, then informing farmers as to how they could better feed or what they might need to change in diets to therefore increase or better the output?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 13:45 That is spot on. Jess, I'm a teacher and I give you an A plus for your interpretation of my description. The supply chains are made up of three flows, essentially. Flows of product, flows of finance and flows of information. And what DEXA technology is doing for example is it's not only enabling a really good flow of product for giving customers what they want, but it's also improving the flow of information backwards and forwards through the supply chain and so much of this information in days gone by has really gone to the customer and the poor old producers just been left guessing, guessing what they need to produce and incurring costs of what they need to produce.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 14:31 So, now with the types of information signals that are being created from this sort of technology, this is really valuable information, essentially for making the best use of the farmer's resources, whether that be money that they're putting into their livestock or whether it's essentially just their time in decision making. So, it's really innovative and very, very, very interesting from a whole supply chain perspective.

Jessica Morrison: 14:59 Look, according to statistics from the United Nations about a third of food globally goes to waste. You've touched on waste earlier on when we've had this discussion. What roles can we all play to help minimise this waste, whether we're producers along the supply chain or consumers?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 15:19 It's an absolute travesty, isn't it? It's absolutely awful that so much of the wonderful, fresh, healthy, nutritious food that we have at our disposal is wasted. Most of the food that is wasted, the waste occurs in two parts of the supply chain, believe it or not. We have evidence to suggest that the majority of food that is wasted is wasted in our households and the consumer end of the supply chain.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 15:47 So not only households, but catering and food value added sector. So restaurants, catering and in the household so the processed end. But second to that is the end of the supply chain at the production end, there is an enormous amount of waste that occurs at the production phase. I find this particularly interesting because as a producer, the last thing you want is to see your hard-earned produce on the ground, going to waste and rot.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 16:18 So, it's a really interesting issue because while there are no obvious incentives to waste food that's produced or "raw food", I should say, whether that's a fresh capsicum or a tonne of oats or a litre of milk, the problem that we've got in our supply chains is that as consumers we've become so terribly spoiled with top quality food. So, unfortunately, there's no market for "seconds" or second-quality food. It's not economically viable for second quality or third quality food to have something done with it.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 17:00 And remember that farmers are in business just like the rest of us. And yes, we can be ethical and responsible and moral to a point. But sometimes, unfortunately, you just have to let it go to waste. You just have to let it rot on the ground because there's nothing you can do. There are some exceptions, some really good news stories – avocado ice cream and this sort of thing, these sorts of products that consumers have taken up where second and third-grade avocados are being processed into ice cream and highly value added. They're fabulous stories, but in terms of the quantity of food that's produced until us as consumers can start lightening up a bit and accepting and being willing to pay for second and third-grade produce, we don't have any demand for it.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 17:50 So, it's certainly not ideal, but it's a very interesting and challenging situation that farmers are faced with because the other thing is nobody sees farm waste anymore. In years gone by, my mum, when she was a little girl, they had an orchard and they had a chook pen out the back and the whole family was involved in their food production.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 18:13 My backyard at home's covered in bricks. [Laughs.] So, I don't see food waste at the production end, so I'm not exposed to it on a day-to-day basis. So, out of sight, out of mind, it really pains me to say. But what we can do about it: we can make better choices at the supermarket and buy what we need to, plan our meals better, opt for unpackaged fresh fruit and vegetables, or even responsibly packaged fresh fruit and vegetables. But from the producer end, we've just got to try our very best to create markets for these second and third-quality goods. The part of the supply chain that has got no worries at all is the middle. They do a fantastic job in minimising waste. They really do. Hats off to the processors and packagers and transporters and warehousing facilities that are doing a fantastic job in minimising waste.

Jessica Morrison: 19:10 When you talk about particularly the consumer end and "out of sight out of mind", do you think though what we've experienced in recent years with bare supermarket shelves, is it maybe going back to that earlier thinking of our grandparents of using more and more things we might have chucked in the bin once upon a time, but now we're like: "Oh no, I should probably pop that in the ... don't want to waste it, pop it in the dinner tonight?"

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 19:33 I hope so. But the problem that we know all too well about in the literature, that behavioural science talks about very openly is the changing attitude and the changing knowledge around food preparation. We know that with the changing nature of society so for example, women going to work, women being in the workforce ... my Nana, she didn't work. Her place was raising her four daughters and making sure there was a hot meal on the table for her husband when he came home. So she knew how to prepare food. I don't know that much, I'm not as good as putting on a roast dinner as she was because I do other things with my time. And so those really important tricks and tips that were applied in days gone by when food was genuinely rationed, unfortunately that knowledge amongst so many sections of society has gone.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 20:32 So again, do we need education campaigns to bring back the good old days of ... you know, your vegetable peelings? You can actually put them in your pot of soup. They're the most nutritious part of your veggies, pop them in the soup. Don't put them in the rubbish bin. So these sorts of little tricks and tips.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 20:52 The other thing is something that breaks my heart in terms of food consumption and what we do at the supermarket is in terms of nutrition: why is it that we are more comfortable with buying a highly processed chicken kiev, which is so bad for us, when we could or should possibly be consuming something like tripe or heart or liver? Now, I'm a modern consumer and there's a better chance of hell freezing over before I would consume tripe over a chicken kiev. But the fact of the matter is that offal is far more nutritious. It's a far better use of byproducts than a highly processed chicken kiev, but we've lost our desperation for food and how precious food, raw food, is. And particularly meat. Meat's a special treat. It's something that should be treasured and all food is precious. And so the more we can get back to that logic, the better off we might be.

Jessica Morrison: 21:57 That is a really, really interesting way to look at it, those points that you've raised, Elizabeth.

Episode break: 22:00 [Music.]

Jessica Morrison: 22:06 Switching to your personal interest in the research area, how did you become a researcher in this area?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 22:13 Well, let me start off with a bad news story that turns into a good news story. I came into the world of agri-food research essentially by accident because I failed high school. I was a terrible high school student and the rule in my family, because I was the first one in my family to go to university, was that when I finished school, you were going to go to university. End of story. But the problem was because I was so bad at school I failed. And the only course that I could get into at university was Curtin's agribusiness course. But what that meant was I had to go to work on a farm for a year before I was allowed in, so I went and did that. I think it was two weeks after I got my driver's licence. I got in my little car and I buzzed 400 kilometres southeast of Perth and started working on a farm. And there I stayed for the year studying by correspondence.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 23:10 And I found that I was really good at these subjects. I'd never studied agronomy before. I'd never studied animal science. I'd never studied farm business management and I not only enjoyed it, but I flourished. And it set me on a journey that I haven't looked back from. And I have enjoyed every single microsecond of my career in global agribusiness. And I took to it like a duck to water and yeah, 51 units through Curtin University later, I am the educated person that I am today with a global career in agribusiness and back where I belong in Perth, Western Australia, working for Curtin University. And like I said, loving every minute of it and fascinated by how things are turning out in agri-food supply chain systems, as a consequence of COVID.

Jessica Morrison: 24:01 I love that story, Elizabeth.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 24:03 [Laughs.]

Jessica Morrison: 24:03 And it is great. [Chuckles.] It is really good. You can tell you're so passionate about it as well, it's a really important sector in our society. Just lastly, if you could pinpoint just one challenge that you faced in your research, what would that be?

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 24:18 For me, the biggest problem is encouraging people to participate in research. It's absolutely essential. And when you are a researcher and you're trying your best to collect data on something that you know is incredibly important because you've got funding from a really esteemed prestigious body to conduct that research, and nobody will participate, it's absolutely soul destroying.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 24:46 When I was a girl and I was doing [my] PhD at Curtin the Australian farming sector was actually known globally for its enthusiasm for participating in research, which was fantastic for me as a student, but through the passage of time, that's actually changed. And I understand that people have developed almost ... research fatigue, that they're just damn sick of participating in focus groups and surveys, but it's so important. It's so, so important for the development of the provision of safe and nutritious food to society. And any organisation that is forward thinking, is open to collaborating with universities, is doing a really great thing. That participation and that collaboration is really so terribly important.

Jessica Morrison: 25:40 That's really, really interesting, Elizabeth. Thank you so much. And if anyone does want to get involved in any of your research, any industry partners who are listening to this, we'll make sure that your details are in our show notes. So look, thank you so much, Liz for coming in today, really appreciate it.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 25:56 No problems at all. It's been an absolute pleasure, Jess. Thank you so much to you and the team for the invitation. I just really hope that it's been a great use of time and people have enjoyed listening.

Jessica Morrison: 26:07 I'm sure they have. Thank you so much, Liz.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson: 26:09 No problem.

Jessica Morrison: 26:10 You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you've enjoyed this episode, please share it. And if you want to hear from more experts, stay up to date by subscribing to us on your favourite podcast app. Bye for now.