One of the positive aspects of Britain’s departure from the EU is that it has sparked off a debate on the future of UK farming, requiring us to question fundamental assumptions. Should we see food as a commodity for export, or to feed ourselves? What counts as a public good? And can we restructure our food system in a way that meets more of our needs – nutritional, social and cultural?
It’s hard to escape the growing interest in local food over the past few decades. Whether it’s restaurants boasting fresh, local produce on their menus, the rise in farmers’ markets and farm shops or the growth of box schemes such as Riverford, it’s clear that people value food that comes with a story. Even supermarkets have noticed, as Morrisons credits soaring demand for regional produce for its healthy profits last year. In order to understand the movement better, and to see where it might be headed, it is worth exploring the motivations behind it.
For there is more to ‘local’ than meets the eye. After all, nobody gets excited about eating bacon from the local intensive pig unit or white sliced bread from the in-store bakery at the supermarket. Instead the term is shorthand for a vision of food characterized by small-scale farming and growing, heritage breeds, artisan processing, family businesses and traditional skills.
It is also about self-reliance and ‘taking back control’, in the sense of using what grows locally with a minimum of inputs and rejecting globalization. It is about a sense of connection, which we have traded in for the convenience of the modern food industry, but with mixed feelings, as the Food Standards Authority’s report Good Food for All notes.
But there is more to local food than sentiment. Buying locally – whether it’s food or anything else – helps build local wealth, creating jobs and opportunities. Money spent with local producers tends to circulate in the local economy, rather than being siphoned off to supermarket shareholders. It also builds food security, as it makes us less vulnerable to disruptions in the complex global distribution networks that keep the supermarket shelves full. And arguably, it creates social capital as it builds links between producers and customers and supports a sense of place.
The local food movement has been driven by grassroots action, although often with government support. One classic model is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where customers pay upfront for a share in the harvest, thus sharing the risk with the producer. They will also visit the farm and take part in work sessions and celebrations. It asks a lot of both producer and customers, and it is transformative for that reason.
Vegetables are the traditional mainstay of CSA schemes, but bread, herbs, flowers, cheese and meat may also be on offer. Often there is an interesting twist to the food story. Brighton Sheep Share, for instance, sells lamb from Herdwicks that graze the nearby downland to maintain biodiversity. In Bristol, a micro-dairy called Street Goat uses goats to manage habitat and process food waste, while inviting its members to buy a slot on the milking rota each week, and keep the proceeds. Like many other small-scale food schemes they see themselves as part of a global movement for food sovereignty, well described by the Landworkers’ Alliance’s recent film In Our Hands in which they feature.
Less demanding of their members are the Food Assemblies and similar models based on online ordering systems, such as the Black Mountain Food Hub near Llandeilo in Wales. Here you order what you want and collect it from a central depot a few days later, a system that is close to normal shopping patterns and which saves a farmer the uncertainty and effort that comes with setting up a stall. Such hubs build relationships between customers and producers and can give farmers confidence to expand their enterprises.
Still easier, from the customer’s point of view, is the community shop, of which an example is Cletwr in Mid Wales. This mixes standard items like baked beans and white sliced bread with organic vegetables from local farms, garden surplus fruit and even Welsh wines and spirits. “We want this to be a shop that anyone can come to, to buy food, to use the café, to come to social events and to volunteer,” explains organizer Nigel Callaghan. “We’re keen on local and organic food but we don’t want to exclude people, so we have it alongside the familiar items.”
What the models above have in common is that they recognize that food is more than a commodity, and so build in a social element. This activity is necessarily small-scale, involving groups of people who know each other and leave their unique stamp on their projects. But if we are to harness the enthusiasm generated by grassroots activity and relocalize the food system at scale, other approaches will be needed.
One example is the Transition Towns network, “a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world”, for which local food is key. Another is the Sustainable Food Cities project, which has around 50 members including Cardiff, Leeds and Brighton. These are partnerships between public agencies, businesses, academics and NGOs – including community gardens and CSAs – which aim to “make healthy and sustainable food a defining characteristic of where they live.”
An important part of relocalizing the food system will be to use the power of public procurement. Supporting councils, hospitals and schools to buy food from a range of small suppliers, rather than the usual mass distributors, is a complex task which has attracted some of our best brains. A recent initiative that might make a breakthrough in procurement logistics is the Dynamic Food Procurement national advisory board. So far, though, there are only a few isolated success stories, such as Preston, where school meal procurement is part of the story of how the town took back control of its economy after the banking crash. The potential is there, awaiting the political will.
Could Brexit be the opportunity for a step change in our food systems? The rhetoric of ‘public goods for public money’ means paying taxes for farmers to deliver healthy soil, clean air and water and biodiversity. Why not make it easier for the public to support good farming through the food that they eat, as well? Direct subsidies for food production are out, but government can support local food systems through education, planning, research and procurement. It can also address structural problems, such as the shortage of local abattoirs which could impact the availability of local meat.
In so doing, it could tap into an unrealized potential. One of the greatest benefits of local food is that it enables the public to form a new relationship with the people who grow and process their food. We can meet the producers and ask questions. What chemicals are they using? Do their animals look well cared for? Are they a good employer? Do they contribute to their community?
Through such conversations a deeper understanding of food and farming emerges and new approaches can develop. Farmers can find more profitable markets, and ‘consumers’ can become ‘food citizens’, confident of their right to shape the food system for themselves and others. We can start to create the food system we really want.
Photograph: Jun Kaneko