On Wednesday 2nd June 2021, the Industry and Parliament Trust, hosted an online discussion entitled From Field to Fork: Ensuring a Resilient Food Supply. The event was chaired by Daniel Zeichner MP and the speakers were David Webster, Director of Sustainability & External Affairs, Associated British Foods – UK Grocery Division, and myself Professor Moya Kneafsey, from the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. The discussion was attended by Members from the House of Commons and House of Lords, alongside representatives from industry.
The UK food and drink supply chain supports more than one in ten jobs and contributes £112bn to the economy. The first part of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy argues that the COVID crisis has brought into focus the flaws within the UK food system. The strategy is believed to be the first UK food policy in nearly 75 years. With Dimbleby expected to report Part Two later in the year, what steps need to be taken to ensure a resilient food supply and strategy for the UK?
It is important to think holistically in terms of the food system, which is complex and consists of multiple actors operating at different scales. The system responds to different drivers and delivers many outcomes which go beyond food itself, including health, wellbeing, livelihoods, and public goods. The UK food system needs to deliver diets which are healthy, sustainable and accessible to all, as recognised in several important documents such as the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s Our Future in the Land (2019) and the National Food Strategy Part 1. The system also needs to be resilient, capable of responding to shocks. On one hand, the system has shown resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic: food didn’t run out and manufacturing and supply chains showed a lot of adaptability. On the other hand, the system is facing existential threats such as biodiversity decline, natural resource depletion and climate change. Additionally, it is producing diets which are unhealthy, farmers are often struggling to earn a livelihood and the country faces an obesity crisis. In a very wide-ranging discussion, the participants covered many themes including: how to reduce consumption of ‘ultra-processed’ food, whether ‘lab-meat’ will replace naturally grown meat, the role of advertising in influencing diets, how to encourage young or new entrants to farming, the impacts of future trade deals in the UK and in other countries and how to manage perceived trade-offs between food production and environmental depletion.
My perspective on this is to propose that short food supply chains (SFSCs) must be encouraged, enabled and supported in order to increase diversity in our food system. Diversity is essential to improve resilience – it’s a case of not depending entirely on just a few types of foods, or supply chains, which can leave us vulnerable when things go wrong.
SFSCs have as few links as possible between the consumer and producer and they come in a range of forms, adapted to different circumstances (e.g. Farm shops, farmers markets, online shops). SFSCs are mainly used by smaller scale producers who are not producing volumes that could supply large processors or retailers. These small-scaler producers are very important to rural and urban local economies – helping to support food cultures and environmentally regenerative farming practices, as well as creating local jobs.
A feature of SFSCs is the existence of shared social values amongst the people involved such as environmental sustainability or protecting traditional foods and farming practices. SFSCs are transparent (not just traceable) allowing consumers to have easily available information about their food. Research shows that social benefits include ‘reconnection’ between food producers and consumers. This can improve trust and sense of community and help consumers to know more about where their food comes from and the impacts of their consumption decisions. Through the direct connection with consumers, farmers can experience more recognition for the work they do – feeling valued and supported for their role in providing good food and looking after the environment. Economic benefits include jobs created locally, more spending in the local economy and a fairer distribution of added value in the supply chain. Environmental benefits are primarily due to the fact that SFSCs are a route to market for smaller, usually organic or agroecological producers, which means that regenerative production systems can be supported.
The rich debate raised a number of important questions for SFSCs, such as how can they be made available for consumers on low income (as they are often regarded as the preserve of ‘middle class people’)? How can food from SFSCs be built into school meals through public procurement? How can we avoid debates becoming too binary and entrenched? For me, the answers to these questions will be found if we take a holistic perspective on how we value our food systems. By recognising the public goods that SFSCs deliver (such as health, wellbeing, environmental benefits, education) we could use policy to support them. SFSCs may go against the trends we have seen for concentration in the food system, but by thinking differently about what we want the food system to deliver, we can start to see the value of this approach.
Words by Professor Moya Kneafsey from Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University