No small potatoes: Understanding risks and im

No small potatoes: Understanding risks and im

When most people hear about the state of Idaho, potatoes are probably the first thing they think of. Those famous potatoes are at the forefront of a new research project at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) as well.  

This research began at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people all over the world were seeing disruptions to the production and distribution of many important goods. The pandemic inspired an interest in how resilient our nation’s production and distribution systems are, against similar large-scale social disruptions as well as climate-related impacts. An INL research team interested in addressing these challenges identified food and agriculture as one sector to better understand. 

From there, they searched for an appropriate commodity to serve as their first official case study. For an Idaho-based team, the three most obvious options were milk, wheat and potatoes. 

“Potatoes quickly stood out as the most viable good for the case study,” said Ruby Nguyen, a researcher in INL’s Systems Dynamics and Modeling team. “We used the Goldilocks effect to make this decision. The turnaround time for production and distribution of milk was too quick to observe easily, while the turnaround time for wheat was too slow. The timeframe for potatoes turned out to be just right.”  

Nguyen has long been interested in supply chain trends: how materials and goods get to where they’re needed and whether enough supply exists to meet demand. In this project, she connects supply chain research to another important topic: critical infrastructure.  

Nguyen and her team are working closely with Ryan Hruska, a critical infrastructure researcher at INL, to deduce the connections between critical infrastructure and supply chains. Their project is funded by INL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program and includes collaboration with an economics professor from the University of Idaho. 


Although Nguyen and Hruska decided to use the potato supply chain as their first subject, what they learn will be applied to other supply chains as well.  

In the first year of the research, Hruska and his team built their All Hazards Analysis (AHA) framework to support analysis of the potato supply chain. AHA maps critical infrastructures and the relationships between them. It can be used to observe how disruption to one vital asset can affect others in the region. In this project, the team will use it to analyze impacts of critical infrastructure disruptions to the potato supply chain. 

Nguyen’s team, led by Md Mamunur Rahman, then generated a separate model to analyze how slumps in demand impacted potato producers, potato farmers, shippers, processing companies and retailers. Their results were published in the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

One surprise from this phase of the project, according to Nguyen, was that the timing of a demand disruption, not just its magnitude, can impact prices. 


Today, the team is examining supply disruptions, particularly those related to climate change. To do this, researchers are modeling two possible issues – drought and bad weather, such as unexpected early October frosts.  

They are aiming to map how supply or demand disruptions can affect a particular region. This information will help determine whether the potato supply chain is resilient. It will also inform a risk analysis paper led by INL infrastructure researcher Barry Ezell.  


In the end, Nguyen and Hruska will use their understanding of potato processing to see how supply chain resilience plays into the manufacturing sector. So far, they’ve modeled only 10 farmers and a few shippers, but they hope to use high-performance computing to model the entire distribution system. 

The ultimate goal is to apply their knowledge of the potato supply chain’s resilience to determine what factors make a supply chain resilient. From there, they can provide recommendations for building resiliency into other distinct supply chains, helping them better anticipate dramatic impacts, like the panic purchasing seen at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or significant weather shifts generated by climate change. 

 Once their work with the potato supply chain is complete, the team has another lofty goal: total supply chain decarbonization.  

Part of their third-year efforts will include a closer examination of each step in the manufacturing supply chain process. They will use these observations to determine whether it makes more sense to reduce the supply chain’s carbon footprint incrementally at each step, or largely at one critical step.  

“We have economists, risk analysts and systems modelers on our team,” Nguyen said. “This approach helps us not only understand another individual’s perspective, but also allows us to address all aspects of supply chain issues – not just prices but also revenue and social welfare.” 

About Idaho National Laboratory
Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, and also performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. For more information, visit Follow us on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. 

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