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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
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.