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Learning how to secure the food supply chain in times of a pandemic with the help of a gamification approach

Written by Herbert Streit



The SARS COVID 19 pandemic in the year 2020 has revealed the vulnerability of supply chains in a globalized world. The disruptions were not so much caused by the pandemic itself, but by the national and international quarantine measures. This article focuses on the food supply chain as one of the most important factors for human survival. Although it’s written from the European perspective, the authors are very well aware that developing countries were hit much harder by the pandemic and especially by the disruption of their food supply chains.

As far as the more developed countries are concerned, the food supply chains have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of the crisis so far

Demonstrating the disruption of the food supply chains, the resulting problems, the activities for mitigation, this paper shows how a gamification approach in logistics and supply chain management, especially for the food sector, could help to be better prepared for the next crisis.

Such a highly digitised gaming approach, fed with all kinds of supply chain data could provide a real-life scenario. It could be used to learn the basics of logistics, but also to simulate a crisis like the SARS COVID 19 pandemic and to learn the skills necessary to master it with the least damage.

Keywords: logistics, supply chain management, food supply, digitalisation, SARS COVID 19, pandemic, the European Union, transportation



  1. Introduction – 1 –
  2. Effects of a pandemic on transport and logistics of food – 2 –

2.1         Definition and characteristics and the spread of a pandemic                                  – 2 –

2.2         Effects of a pandemic on the international food chain infrastructure due to the measures taken           – 2 –

2.2.1          Effects on farm production and food processing                                              – 2 –

2.2.2          Effects on transport of agriculture raw material and products                          – 3 –

2.2.3          Effects from sudden shifts in the consumer demands                                     – 4 –

  1. Reactions, solutions and alternatives when responding to the measures and consequences of a pandemic event – 4 –

3.1         Why did the food supply chain and logistics show a good amount of resilience during the crisis?           – 4 –

3.2         The blessings of a digitalized world                                                                         – 5 –

3.3         Logistics and supply chain management has a very adaptable nature                  – 5 –

3.4         Smart political decisions                                                                                           – 5 –

3.5         A summary of lessons learned                                                                                 – 6 –

3.5.1          Avoiding transport disruptions                                                                          – 6 –

3.5.2          Avoiding a shortage of seasonal workers on farms and in food processing factories         – 6 –

3.5.3          Avoiding the lack of resources                                                                          – 6 –

  1. Mitigating the impact of a pandemic on the food logistics and food supply chain management with gamification approach – 7 –

4.1         Database layer                                                                                                         – 7 –

4.2         Analytics layer                                                                                                          – 8 –

4.3         The user level                                                                                                           – 8 –

  1. Conclusion – 8 –

References:                                                                                                                                III


Since March 2020, the SARS COVID 19 pandemic has damaged large parts of the inter-national economy in a way that hardly anyone could have foreseen. One of the critical consequences was the damage of national and international supply chains, which in many places severely impaired or stopped the production and distribution of all kinds of goods.

This includes national and international food supply chains, where the pandemic has placed unprecedented stresses on, resulting in bottlenecks in farm labor, processing, transport and logistics, as well as momentous shifts in customers’ demand. Fortunately, food supply chains have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of these stresses (The Economist, 2020) Grocery store shelves could be replenished over time, as stockpiling behavior slowed down.

But we have to be aware that this is only the case for the nations in the so-called “first world” with a population having a well-developed security net and governmental support. The situation looks worse or even catastrophic for those who do not have sufficient financial reserves, especially in the poorer parts of the world. In developing countries with low social safety and expected higher food prices, the pandemic will lead to more poverty and hunger (Laborde et al., 2020). This article is confined to the situation in the so-called “developed countries” with special consideration to the EU.

While the impacts of COVID-19 are still unfolding, experience so far shows the importance of an open and predictable international trade environment to ensure food can be moved to where it is needed. Food security includes food production, where some of the input supply chains are concerned and food availability, where some of the output supply chains are concerned.  Smart logistic strategies for every part of the food chain – from production to delivery – are essential to avoid an increase of hunger and food insecurity in times of a crisis like the SARS COVID 19 pandemic.

Introducing gamification into logistics and supply chain management training and simulation could be a good idea for faster progress to solve such problems.

Over the past years, the gamification model has become one of the leading topics for discussion if and how it can be applied to the training of pupils, students and staff in companies. According to Groh (2012),] the term “gamification” applies to the use of a game or desire to stimulate the involvement of a consumer (trainee) in a given activity.

Despite the serious consequences for the people and the economy, the SARS COVID 19 pandemic should not be seen as just a “model crisis”, but rather as a wake-up call for future pandemics, maybe even severe ones. This paper showcases how food supply chains (SC) have been affected by the pandemic crisis. The surprising resilience of the food supply chain during the crisis is discussed.

The second part will present a possible approach to prepare, handle and master the difficulties mentioned above and train logistics students and professionals in games and simulations to prepare themselves and their companies and institutions for future crises.

Finally, different possible gamification approaches are being discussed.

  1. Effects of a pandemic on transport and logistics of food
    • Definition and characteristics and the spread of a pandemic

A pandemic describes the spread of a disease in humans across countries and continents, in the narrower sense the spread of an infectious disease (WHO, 2010). In contrast to an epidemic, a pandemic is not limited in terms of location (Robert Koch Institut, 2009).

With regard to influenza, the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulated in its guide-lines on pandemic influenza risk management, which was last revised in May 2017, that the declaration of a pandemic – i.e. the transition from an epidemic to a pandemic – is to be carried out by the WHO Director-General. This was declared for SARS COVID 19 on the 11th of March 2020 (WHO, 2020).

This new Coronavirus has the potential to generate a huge amount of seriously sick people who have to be hospitalized. This happens due to a long incubation period and a big amount of asymptomatic infections (Robert Koch Institut, 2020).

Depending on the number of infections and the number of victims who had to be hospitalized, the lockdown measures differed throughout the world.  In consequence the direct impact on the economy differed depending on time and region. Contingency plans for future pandemics have to take this into account to ensure a flexible and customized strategy. This is especially true for the logistics and supply chain business.


  • Effects of a pandemic on the international food chain infrastructure due to the measures taken

Producing and distributing food is a process with a lot of components, starting from the seeds, fertilizers, plant protection, harvesting, packing, final storage and transport. Additional steps are necessary in the production of meat or in the further processing of milk. Some of these steps are very labor intensive, some are highly automated.

So, the main problems turn out to be the lack of workforce and problems in transport. Most of them were and are still affected by the impact of the pandemic or by the measures taken against the pandemic.


  • Effects on farm production and food processing

Farm sectors are mostly dependent on (seasonal) labor. In Europe, most of them are travelling from the eastern European countries. Especially fruits and vegetables are more labor-intensive than grains and oilseeds which have a higher degree of automation. Limits on the mobility of people have reduced the availability of seasonal workers for planting and harvesting in the fruit and vegetable sector in many EU countries (Molteni, 2020).

Local volunteers could not fill the gap. Whether they were not willing to do this kind of hard work or because they did not have the necessary skills to work fast enough for covering the costs (Altmann, 2020). While the work on the farm is usually done outside with a lower risk of infection, food processing is usually done inside of a factory building with workers placed close to each other, working in a cold environment. Social distancing measures reduce the efficiency of their work. The higher likelihood of infections or the fear of them led to labor shortages and even to shutdowns, especially in the meat processing industry (Molteni, 2020).


  • Effects on transport of agriculture raw material and products

Bottlenecks in transport and logistics due to the effects of the pandemic and the measurements taken have disrupted the movement of products along supply chains, including the food supply chain.

The three main modes of transport used for agriculture and food products: bulk (ships and barges); containers (by boat, rail or truck), other road transport and air freight. Different products use different modes of transport: grains and oilseeds, for example, are typically shipped in bulk; meat and dairy products are often shipped in refrigerated containers and trucks; and perishable products with a high value-to-weight ratio are transported by air, mostly in the “bellies” of passenger planes.

Bulk shipment is still going well and has not seen a remarkable decline. Cereals and oilseeds can be handled highly automated with less labor input (Agriculture Market Information System, 2020). Commercial road transport has fallen by more than 50% in April this year and is slowly recovering (Runnel, 2020). The steep decline in passenger air travel has brought belly transport to an all-time low.

The seed sector is highly globalized. Multiplication, production, processing and packaging for the same seed is often done in different countries and seeds are often transported by air. Fortunately, the seed needed for the spring sowing period arrived in time before travel restrictions were put in place. At the time when this article was written, it was not clear if the seed for the next growing season will be fully available (OECD, 2020).

The introduction of border regulations across countries in Europe and the rest of the world is creating disruption in the food supply chains. Extra check, new or additional certificates at borders resulted in long delays. This could be disastrous for fresh goods. Some countries even sent trucks and/or drivers to quarantine, thereby significantly reducing ground fleets, especially in Europe (Deutsche Welle, 2020)]. Quarantines also apply to ships, which need to stay longer in ports.  As a result, this leads to an increased risk of product damage and delays (SHD Logistics, 2020)


  • Effects from sudden shifts in the consumer demands

Rapid and unexpected shifts in consumer demands had challenged the operating mode of the food supply chains.

Retail demand for canned, dried and frozen food increased dramatically in March when a general lockdown could no longer be denied. At the same time the demand for “food away from home” went towards zero with all the restaurants, cafes, catering, hotels closing, while the demand for “food consumed at home” products increased sharply.

The problem here is that volumes cannot just be shifted from catering to retail without extra costs in repackaging into retail units.

Human nutrition is very versatile and adaptable. The fact that different kinds of food were not available at certain times did not cause hunger riots in the “first world”, but whining at a high level.


  1. Reactions, solutions and alternatives when responding to the measures and consequences of a pandemic event
    • Why did the food supply chain and logistics show a good amount of resilience during the crisis?

Whatever crisis we are facing, the food supply chain and food logistics from “seed to meal” must be enabled to continue to work, taking into account all necessary safety measures.

While there have clearly been stresses and issues, overall, food supply chains in the developed world have demonstrated remarkable robustness and resilience in the face of COVID-19.

There are several reasons for this:

The responsible parties have obviously learned from their mistakes of the 2007/2008 food price crisis (Wikipedia, 2020) when food prices increased unexpectedly causing economic and political instability in poorer and developing countries. It turned out that suppressing international food trade instead of continuing an open trade, made things even worse.

Other than in the manufacturing industry with their “just in time” supply models, the food industry usually holds a good amount of safety stocks and so is able to survive a phase of stockpiling or delayed supplies (Rubinstein, 2020).

In addition, food processors and retailers reacted swiftly to the changing demand. In-creased operating hours, hired extra staff in factories and retail shops. What also helped was the simplification of product lines and investigation to find alternative product deliveries (BBC, 2020).

Companies who had invested in creating more visibility in their supply chain and thus had a better understanding of the operation of their supply networks, seem to have react-ed better (Thomas et al., 2020).


  • The blessings of a digitalized world

All actors along the food supply chains could make use of delivery methods like “click and collect” services and online sales on a large scale. Fortunately, they already had started using it before the pandemic. Farmers started using digital technologies and plat-forms to sell their produce directly to consumers (Foote, 2020). Initiatives also emerged to link farmers and restaurants directly to food banks (Taunton, 2020). So transport routes could be abbreviated and the risk of delays that come with long transport routes could be minimized.


  • Logistics and supply chain management has a very adaptable nature

The transport sector has swiftly adapted to the shocks of COVID-19. As passenger airline travel collapsed in February and March, removing a daily cargo capacity of around 80 000 tons, the use of specialized private aircraft for freight has expanded, adding more than 20 000 tons of daily capacity (Rachelle, 2020).

Road transport faced different challenges when activity in non-essential sectors was greatly reduced, while other sectors such as food retail faced demand spikes. Yet the industry reacted quickly and managed to reorient the capacity to food and agriculture products (OECD, 2020).

  • Smart political decisions

A bunch of smart political policies and suspending restrictions helped the logistics industry to continue their work. One good example was the creation of green lanes to minimize the total time spent on border crossing down to 15 minutes (European Commision, 2020).

While new restrictions limiting the number of drivers in a vehicle were necessary, EU Member States suspended other restrictions (e.g. bans on driving at night or driving on weekends). Policymakers also streamlined certification procedures (e.g. by allowing scanned copies or electronic signatures) and relaxed regulations on trade in food – e.g. some labelling requirements (WTO, 2020).

However, the most impactful policy response is probably that policymakers have so far avoided a repeat of the mistakes of the 2007-8 food price crisis, when initial food price increases were greatly exacerbated by export bans imposed by major exporters. Although some countries have introduced export restrictions during the current crisis, so far, their number and impact have been limited. Moreover, WTO members responsible for two-thirds of global exports of agriculture and agri-food products issued a joint declaration ex-pressing their commitment to keeping international trade open (WTO, 2020).


  • A summary of lessons learned
    • Avoiding transport disruptions

Perishable loads (like food) and other essential goods must be handled with priority at the border. Borders must be kept open for such transports like a “green lane” the EU had set up in March 2020 for the duration of the pandemic (European Comission, 2020). Regulations for truck drivers should be temporarily relaxed within justifiable safety and health parameters but the drivers also have to be provided with the necessary infrastructure if the rest areas are closed down.

Shipments in international harbors are taking longer than usual to unload because of a possible lack of transport workers. So, container detention charges on import shipments must be waived.

Electronic certifications for the imports of fresh or perishable products must be accepted and additional certification (like virus free food) must be avoided.


  • Avoiding a shortage of seasonal workers on farms and in food processing factories

Seasonal workers from outside the country must be allowed to move across borders, with the appropriate registration and strict supervision of the medical regulations and restrictions.

Seasonal workers from inside the country, especially volunteers, must know what they expect in terms of physical hard work or long hours. Financial incentives like tax ad-vantages could also raise motivation.

In all cases pandemic measures like social distancing, availability of protective equipment against the virus must be ensured: at work and in the accommodation, even if they might slow down the productivity.


  • Avoiding the lack of resources

All services related to food production and distribution must be kept operating. The production of seeds and seedlings should partially be moved back from China into the EU region. Producers of food, seeds and other agricultural products, especially the smaller ones, must be provided with financial assistance from the government to ensure that they are able to continue their work.

The marginal conditions in the food sector can be partly controlled by the government and partly by the companies. The support for the companies and their logistics could be subsidized by the government accordingly, as activities such as seed production are undoubtedly more expensive than if they are relocated from abroad.


  1. Mitigating the impact of a pandemic on the food logistics and food supply chain management with gamification approach


It is questionable whether a pandemic like SARS COVID 19 can be prevented in the future. A lot of other “candidates” with the potential to cause a pandemic are already listed (Gavi, 2020). Others might already have jumped from their animal reservoir to humans, but are still unknown. So, the next pandemic will be a matter of time, we should be prepared (Quammen, 2012).

As far as the food supply chain is concerned, this pandemic has taught us enough les-sons to prepare ourselves for the future. Our experiences and the resulting measures and best practices will be documented in tons of books and terabytes of online documents. Governments all around the world will adapt their policies to be better prepared for the next health crisis like this.

Students of logistics and supply chain management will be trained to be prepared for something like this. During academic training, every student of logistics learns about disruptions in the supply chain and their impact on companies. However, this bookish knowledge, although foundational, does not prepare them for all the potential contingencies and scenarios for a disaster similar to this one.

A training tool to simulate such a scenario could be very beneficial here.

It can be compared with a flight simulator for pilots. When the theoretical part of how to fly an airplane has been settled down in their brains, it is time to get a hands-on tool to simulate a real flight. They start with routine flights but then are confronted with unexpected incidents like heavy weather or technical problems. They can solve a part of their problems with prepared procedures on checklists, but from a certain point of unpredictability, they will have to make their own decisions to survive.

The consequences of pandemics for logistics and supply chain management and the activities to mitigate them could be rehearsed and tested for their feasibility, suitability and financial viability.

The first target group for such a game would be the logistics students who are the experts and decision-makers of the near future.

The gamification approach would be a three-layer application.


  • Database layer

The prerequisite for a motivating and insightful gaming scenario is the availability of all kinds of data regarding the food supply chain. This includes all possible data and metadata, structured or unstructured. This is known in industry and politics as Big Data (Gartner, 2020).

Besides the data about the goods and the transport units within the whole food supply chain, we also need data about all the variations of governmental policies and even data about the consumers’ behavior.

In a students’ and trainees’ gaming environment, this would be artificially generated or anonymized data in a “frozen” data repository.

For real-life companies and institutions, the data would have to be updated as soon as they change.


  • Analytics layer

The second layer of our gaming application would be the analytics layer, a Business Intelligence approach (Dedric and Stanier, 2016). Other common terms are Business Analytics (Beller and Barnett, 2009) or Data Mining (Holton, 2010).

These are different terms for similar procedures. It’s all about making sense of one’s data, that is produced with every business activity. It helps to recognize patterns, improve quality and return on investment and get support for business and governmental decisions.

To create this layer is a task for data scientists, not for logistics students or experts – unless they are trained in both. The analytics layer is the place where all the linkages and calculations take place. This layer is fed by the data repository.


  • The user level

This level presents the gaming interface to the (end)users: students, trainees or experts in logistics. It’s a graphical interface where the gamers can train how to do their daily job in logistics and supply chain management.

Once they have mastered the basic levels, they will be faced with disrupted food supply chains, locked down farms, closed food factories and closed borders in a pandemic world.

Like in every computer game, their goal is to master the challenge with the least damage for the ones they are responsible for (company, institution, population, etc.).

As stated before, such a game can also be played by professional logistics and supply chain experts in companies and institutions. The better the data repository is, the closer it gets to reality and can help to establish emergency plans and even can help to confer check decisions in times of a real crisis.


  1. Conclusion

Gamification can be defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game context”. According to Groh (2012) and  Deterding et al. (2011) the term “gamification” applies to the use of a game or desire to stimulate the involvement of a consumer (trainee) in a given activity. Games are likely the most important assists of animals and humans to learn for survival (Pellegrini and Smith, 2005).

A pandemic, like the one we are just going through and a computer game, might be a contradiction at first sight. Work and games are often seen as a contrast. But in our digitized world we now have the tools to simulate close to real-life scenarios and to learn how to handle them – and this can be really hard work.

Despite all the losses we have seen during the last months, the COVID 19 pandemic is a great opportunity to prepare ourselves for future crises. We have learned a lot, wrote it down in documents and promised ourselves and all the others to do better in the future. A lot of these great plans will have been postponed and forgotten when we slide into the next pandemic.

We need to concentrate on the system relevant parts of the business and food supply is one of them. As discussed above: governmental policies are essential, but at the same time, the food industry has to take care of itself as well. What we need are logistics and supply chain experts who are trained in handling such a crisis.

Gamification approaches in logistics and supply chain management, especially in the food sector, can do their share to provide experts with the appropriate knowledge and experience and can help to countercheck emergency routines for their practical feasibility. It is about learning the business of logistics and supply chain management, but it is also to train some sort of gut-feeling to make the best possible decisions in times of a crisis.          A computer game is an ideal training tool to achieve this.

Highly sophisticated versions of such a game could also help logistics experts in companies and institutions to get their business prepared for the next crisis and to act on an experienced level in the next crisis.

Preventive measures cost money and this is why they are usually not very popular in profit-oriented enterprises. A sophisticated gamification approach could show the volume of investment in prevention compared to the loss of money in the case of doing no prevention. To give a rough idea about the ratios: by the end of July 2020, the SARS COVID 19 pandemic has cost at least $2.6. trillion and might pile up to 10 times this amount (Princeton University, 2020).

Although the prevention of such a pandemic in the future should be the highest priority of the world community, it is more than questionable if the root causes – deforestation and wildlife trade – can be stopped.

So, it’s a good idea to prepare ourselves for the next pandemic and to train our logistics students accordingly. This can all be achieved with quite a low investment.




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The article is part of the development of a study on the application of the game approach in logistics and transport training (Output title O4) under the Erasmus+ strategic partnership project “Building an innovative network for sharing of the best educational practices, incl. game approach, in the area of international logistic and transport”, Project number: KA203/HE25/13.09.2019