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    The Future of Local Food: Joining the Dots

    Vocal for Local: Joining the Dots
    23/06/2022 Yali Banton Heath

    As part of our 2022 Vocal for Local week, in this blog post our Resilient Local Food Systems Coordinator Tony Little argues that in order to deliver a transition to local food systems on a scale that enables the transformational change, what we need is a coordinated effort.

    Over the last 50 years our food system has become dominated by a handful of corporate supermarket supply chains. They have delivered cheap food to millions, but this has come at a colossal cost to the environment, the viability of farm businesses, local economies, local communities and to the health of the nation. Local and short supply chain food systems offer solutions to many of these problems: they are resilient (as highlighted during the COVID 19 pandemic); they benefit the local economies; they support agroecological farming systems delivering key environmental benefits; they cut down on food waste; and they re-establish the connection between consumers and their food. And yet, they supply only a fraction of the UK’s food requirement. Exactly what this fraction is remains a matter of debate – estimates vary from less than 5 to 15% – but whichever way you cut it, it’s relatively small compared to the overwhelming market share of supermarkets.

    So how do we transition to a place where local and resilient food systems become the norm, and healthy, nutritious food is available – and affordable – for everyone? The Landworkers Alliance is just one of many organisations that has been working on this issue over the last few years. I am part of a team which, with support from the Friends Provident Foundation and the EU, is helping farmers and food businesses understand the implications of establishing or switching to local food systems, facilitating collaboration along short supply chains and campaigning for a policy and regulatory framework that will enable resilient and local food systems to thrive. But if we are going to effect a step change in which we produce, process, deliver and access our food, we need a much more coordinated approach.

    At UK and devolved government level we need a national strategy, which sets national targets for local food production and distribution: for example an 80% domestic and 20% imports food supply vision with independent, local food businesses having a 25% market share by 2030. The establishment of a Local Food Infrastructure Fund – taking inspiration from the Canadian programme – would enable farmers and food businesses to develop and access storage, processing and packing facilities that are of the right scale and in the right place (the polar opposite of the current situation where these facilities are centralised and handle vast volumes of food).

    At present, public procurement contracts usually require the delivery of large volumes of a wide range of foods all year round. With a few notable exceptions, such as the Southwest Food Hub, the only businesses that can achieve this are large catering companies, with supply chains not dissimilar from supermarkets. We need to reorient the provision of food services in schools, hospitals and other public sector institutions around providing food that is healthy, local and sustainably produced. This could be made possible by using dynamic procurement methods to give smaller suppliers access to public procurement contracts.

    Planning policy needs to explicitly favour local food systems, controlling the spread of supermarkets, and enabling the development of local food infrastructure and encouraging the production of food in Green Belt areas to supply local populations.

    Crucially, and on a grassroots and community level farmers and food businesses need to collaborate much more effectively. At present, local food systems are characterised by small businesses each serving their own customer base. I don’t suggest for a moment there is anything wrong with this, but if we want to feed 20 million people with local food (as the ‘25% by 2030’ target implies), alongside this we need local and regional systems that enable businesses to share markets, processing and storage facilities, logistics and transport. Across the UK, there are some excellent models that have already been established. Organisations and businesses like Better Food Traders, The Better Food ShedUnicorn Grocery and Pipers Farm to name just a few, are showing the way forward.

    Food hubs which create local food networks, connecting groups of local producers with local people, have a key role to play in the future of our food systems. Meanwhile digital platforms, such as the Open Food Network, are making this level of collaboration an order of magnitude easier than was the case just a few short years ago. Projects such as the Food Data Collaboration will take us to the next level by enabling those platforms themselves to cooperate with one another.

    The need to collaborate extends to the support network, too. In order to deliver the support on a scale that enables the transformational change, we need a coordinated effort, working towards an agreed strategy and delivering a coherent action plan that will get us to where we need to be.

    As I sit here, a food system dominated by local food businesses seems a long way off. Could it really happen? It is happening – right now. And if we are to meet the colossal challenges in front of us – climate change and biodiversity crisis, food insecurity and inequality – it must happen.

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