In general, the term "agricultural food chain" in agro-economic studies refers to the combination of agents and activities that, with regards to a product or a group of products of agricultural origin, allow the production of their raw material, their transfer in time and space, and their transformation if needed, making it possible to adjust to the consumer’s taste and needs.
Therefore, the agricultural food chain can be considered as a vertical section of agribusiness, delimited either by referring to a specific final product, or by referring to a group of products derived from the same agricultural product. Moreover, the delimitation of an agricultural food chain, once the product we want to refer to is clearly identified, requires the outline of the technical itinerary for the production of that very product, the definition of the geographical space taken into consideration (country, region, group of countries, world) and the reference period.
Agricultural food chain studies can basically concern two aspects:
- Identification and description of the agricultural food chain structure, that is to say the itineraries followed by the products that are the subject of analysis, of the agents that intervene on them (it can be both private companies and public operators), and of the operations carried out by the latter along the agricultural food chain;
- Analysis of the functioning and adjusting mechanisms of the agricultural food chain and therefore of the way in which the relations between the agents that are part of it are determined, considering both horizontal (between companies involved in the same activities) and vertical relations (from the supplier to the consumer).
The study and the knowledge of agricultural food chains become significant for the parties that are involved because it allows them to develop short-term and long-term strategies with greater awareness, and for the public operators as well during the elaboration and evaluation process of the effects of agricultural and agri-food policies.
Being defined as a vertical section of agribusiness, it is clear that the agricultural food chain includes a large number of agents who carry out more and more complex and articulate functions. Therefore, all the agents committed to production, transformation, distribution and marketing as well as final consumption and supply of inputs operate in the agricultural food chain of a product. We can add to these agents also the so-called "institutional" subjects, such as the national and supranational bodies (for example the European Union) that intervene during the different steps of the agricultural food chain, the public markets, the associations of agricultural producers and traders.
In brief, we can say that the functions carried out in an agricultural food chain can be divided in business functions (developed at different levels of the agricultural food chain), physical functions (i.e. stocking, transformation, shipping, etc.), and facilitative functions, aiming to make the previous functions easier to perform and to improve efficiency (i.e. funding, assumption of risks, information, etc…)
The agricultural food chain can be simple or complex according to the number of passages that a product undergoes before it arrives to the consumer: usually fruit and vegetables food chains are simpler than the dairy and meat ones.
The dynamics of agricultural food chains, as they are placed in a specific space, are strongly influenced by the socio-economic and institutional context.
Namely, the first stage of the analysis consists in the identification of the product (or a group of products) that meets a certain food need; once this is done, it is necessary to outline the technical itinerary for the production of that very product, that is to say the succession of basic operations that form the production process. In the production process, an "agricultural" phase and an "industrial" (or "artisanal") phase can be distinguished. The following stage consists in the identification of the different types of production units where the considered production process takes place. The last stage consists in the identification of the various types of actors involved in the production process with various roles.
Editor: Barbara PANCINO