Blog: Strengthening local food supply chains post Covid-19

Published: 27 Aug 2020

Author: Hannah Norman
Blog: Strengthening local food supply chains post Covid-19

As a nation we are reliant on a global web of producers, processors, distributors, and retailers to put food on our tables. The risk in such complexity recently became a reality, when the Covid-19 crisis triggered a breakdown in our food system.

"Local supply chain development requires collaborative support from across the sector, including government, local authorities, NGOs, farmers, growers and consumers" - Hannah Norman, Fellow

Due to consumer stockpiling, the onset of lockdown saw bulk-buying restrictions and empty shelves in supermarkets. Almost overnight, the industry was struck by labour shortages, import restrictions and distribution delays. This caused food supply problems for public institutions, such as care homes and hospitals, as wholesale suppliers were unable to meet demand. Schools closed and the 830,000 children who relied on free school meals for daily sustenance were left at risk.

The fear inflicted by this health crisis exposed the fragility of a system which many had not previously chosen to question. The system proved insufficient and as a nation we became vulnerable. The pandemic was, and still is, a test for the UK. On the eve of Brexit, it is a timely warning of the devastation that could unfold if inadequate decisions are made to meet our country’s requirements.

However, in our recent time of need, many consumers turned to their local producers. We saw an enormous boom in direct-to-consumer sales, particularly for small-scale producers. According to a survey of commercial Welsh growers by Tyfu Cymru (a project that I work for), most growers experienced a dramatic increase in demand for direct sales. The survey also reported that businesses which originally catered to the hospitality sector adapted almost instantly to reach a new consumer market. The function of our food and farming system is to feed people, and the pandemic has naturally highlighted the strength in shorter, simpler supply chains to address that objective.

The idea of returning to a pre-global food system, where our food supply is managed at a local level, is neither new nor radical in the UK. The benefits of localisation over globalisation have been the catalyst for ground-level business development and NGO policy discussion for decades. Food security, job growth, health and environmental benefits and a stronger local economy have been the driving force behind hundreds of new local farms, more direct to consumer markets and community food initiatives. This area of the sector has shown growth over the years, but it has taken a global crisis to expose its value and accelerate it to a new level.

Hannah (centre) testing soil types at the Riverford Farm in Devon

My Churchill Fellowship to the USA in 2016 enabled me to learn from many effective ideas in food system localisation. This included exploring radical food production models and fundamental policy decisions that enabled the development of new approaches to address long-standing issues. These insights have provided a foundation for my post-Fellowship work and have allowed me to further explore the deeper relationships and concepts in our current UK food system.

As a horticulture consultant, I have been fortunate to be directly involved in discussions and action from grassroots to government level, during the pandemic. As stressful as this period has been for the food sector, the sense of urgency has shown that this industry is more adaptable than we thought and that positive change is possible with the right motivation.

Local supply chain development requires collaborative support from across the sector, including government, local authorities, NGOs, farmers, growers and consumers. A unified vision and a collaborative effort are essential for progress. This vision must support our current farmers and growers, improve and develop current production methods, and create new opportunities that will benefit the system both immediately and long-term. Here are some suggestions on what this collective effort could include:

  • Enabling up-scaling and diversification for current farmers, growers and primary producers through government development grants and loans.
  • Creating localised essential infrastructure and processing facilities (such as abattoirs, mills and canneries).
  • Developing training and education schemes to encourage new entrant farmers, growers and essential food chain actors.
  • Enforcing local authority-backed contracts between local food producers and public institutions (such as care homes, hospitals and schools).
  • Providing sector-specific incentives for new product and market development.
  • Developing government incentives for supermarkets and large retailers that stock local produce.
  • Designing and implementing land-access programmes, start-up mentoring and financial support for new entrants.
  • Creating regional campaigns and targeted marketing to educate consumers.

Most importantly, if we are to address the expansion and security of UK food production, we have to do so in a way that encourages ecologically positive production methods. Organic and sustainable production is a commitment to improving soil and plant health, water and air quality, carbon control and animal welfare. To expand the organic and sustainable sector, we must reduce risk and remove the barriers for current and new producers and processors. Government-led financial support, training and guidance would incentivise growth and, as a result, support the future health of our planet.

Share your thoughts on food production with Hannah at [email protected].

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