Just-in-time or Just-in-case ?

“Resilience requires buffer and buffer can look wasteful until the moment when it isn’t.“

These words were uttered by Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Health Service, England before the UK parliament’s Health Committee on 26 January 2021. He was referring to vaccines, making the point that a buffer stock of an essential item might make more sense than a ‘just-in-time’ supply chain. This point could be made in relation to a number of concerns within the NHS. How many intensive care units (ICUs) should it maintain and be able to staff in the knowledge that for some of the year and perhaps most of it they will undoubtedly be surplus to requirements? Will there always be a rush to create emergency Nightingale hospitals from scratch, or will there be a buffer stock of ICUs that can deal with crises as they arise? There will be a financial cost, of course, but there will also be a financial cost to rushing out new facilities from scratch in a crisis or closing society down in order to keep the hospital caseload bearable.

The same principle can be applied to food. Is the approach to be one of Just-in-time? In that case, an emergency prompts a hurried response that works through a supply chain that is likely to break down at any moment. Food is rushed (if it can be rushed) to those who need it, arriving hopefully in time. Or is it to be more of a Just-in-case approach, as recommended by David Dawe of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)? Just-in-case will always face the criticism of representing an excessive and expensive degree of caution in the good times. But in the bad times everyone will be asking: ‘Why didn’t we prepare for a crisis like this in advance? We knew that it would be coming. We just didn’t know when.’

There will always be a balance to be struck. Excessive caution is possible. But ‘Just-in-case’ is much to be preferred as an approach to the sort of ‘Just-in-time’ that can go horribly wrong in a crisis. A further point is that in the case of food, rather than vaccines, buffer stocks offer an approach which can be close to self-sustaining. Food is released onto the market during times of shortage when the price is high, while stocks are replenished during times of plenty when the price is low. By working to protect consumers in the first instance, and farmers in the second, the buffer stock system can at least partly, and sometimes entirely, maintain itself. It buys cheap and sells dear.

In a world of increasing insecurity, whether in terms of human health or the availability of food, it is necessary to have systems that can effectively iron out the wrinkles. In the case of health, the bumps usually come in terms of surges in demand. In the case of food, they usually come in terms of surges or falls in supply. In either case, it is necessary to bring supply and demand into a natural equilibrium that ensures lasting and consistent provision that meets people’s needs. Buffer stocks of food, just as much as buffer stocks of medical supplies, have a role to play in maintaining the stability of our society.