Recent global events have put the spotlight on issues surrounding the food we put on our table. For generations in the UK we have taken for granted that we will have easy access to good quality, affordable food supplies – and then with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, suddenly we didn’t.

Since then, we have also faced the impact of Brexit and the war in Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, which has brought the issue of food security to the top of the agenda. Some may argue over the precise meaning of food security and equate it with affordability, but according to the standard UN definition, it is: “that all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.”

This could be good news for those running small local businesses based on producing native breed meat.

Looking back to the early experiences of the pandemic when lockdown saw supermarket shelves emptying at an unprecedented – and unnecessary – rate, there are two words in the definition of food security that are key: ‘sufficient’ and ‘access’. There was no question of there being sufficient supplies of food available, the problem was access and that problem arose largely because the complex and often lengthy supply chains involved in getting food from producer to consumer were too unwieldy deliver a fast response to changing circumstances.

Better able to adapt

Local, smaller-scale producers are better able to adapt to random events as we saw in the early weeks of lockdown. When The Ark carried a report on the Covid effect in its Summer 2020 issue, it highlighted examples of how a number of its producer/retailer members had responded to customer needs. These included the introduction of delivery services, re-deployment of catering and retail staff to support on-farm production and the introduction of socially-distanced pop-up shops.

It was the same with the abattoirs. When Covid struck, many of the larger abattoirs could not cope with the reduced staff numbers resulting from the high levels of sickness and the need to socially distance in what had previously been crowded workspaces. But the smaller abattoirs, being in the main more agile and adaptable, were able to step up and take on much of the work the big boys could not cope with.

In every case, these responses to changing needs were effected within days and weeks, not the months it would take for a business based on a long supply chain. Long supply chains are not synonymous with food security.

Long chains more vulnerable

Experience is increasingly showing that long supply chains are more vulnerable to forces outside of their control, whether that be global pandemic, territorial conflict or issues such as loss of cross-Channel freight capacity. How many of us shopping in supermarkets in past months have seen understocked shelves with apologetic notices referring to problems with supply chains?

Although we have become used to our food being sourced from across the globe, food security does not have to depend on lengthy supply chains. The EU defined short food supply chains (SFSCs) for the first time in its rural development policy for 2014 to 2020. It describes a SFSC as “a supply chain involving a limited number of economic operators, committed to co-operation, local economic development, and maintaining close geographical and social relations between food producers, processors and consumers.”

In 2021, research conducted under SMARTCHAIN, a three-year EU-funded project, stated that collaborative SFSCs have the potential to “create a shift in the way in which we grow, distribute and consume food”. The survey, which gauged the opinion of over 3,000 European consumers in seven countries including the UK, showed that seven out of ten respondents identified ‘strongly’ with ethical purchasing practices and expressed a ‘clear preference’ for buying locally sourced produce.

Socio-economic benefits

From the research, it was found that a number of socio-economic benefits can be gained from SFSCs, which are typified by on-farm sales, farmers’ markets, community supported co-operatives and direct-to-consumer online sales. A key benefit of SFSCs is that they work for the farmer because, by eliminating a chain of intermediaries, the farmer retains a fairer share of what the end consumer pays. And, as evidenced by the SMARTCHAIN research, consumers prefer shorter supply chains. As they become more informed about food production, the more they require the transparency that comes from local production – and they seem to be willing to pay more for it, something that will become increasingly important as UK farming transitions from the subsidised heavily regulated CAP to a far more market facing post Brexit world.

We should also consider environmental impacts. Many consumers think in terms of the food miles involved in the supply of their food and it is often said that these only make a limited contribution to overall emissions. However, according to a McKinsey report, 90 per cent of companies’ impact on the environment comes from supply chains. Whilst this is an umbrella statistic embracing all types of industry, even those involved in food manufacture and supply depend on production systems that themselves produce significant levels of emissions. The true comparison needs to be between these and the low-input local alternatives, and farmers supplying boxes of native breed meat to their immediate locality compare pretty well.

There are barriers which SFSC suppliers need to overcome, including consumer perceptions about affordability and accessibility. Part of our role as the champions of our rare and native breeds of livestock is to communicate the benefits of local production. Not everyone will take on board the messages, but there is a growing percentage of the population that does want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. Add to that the social and environmental benefits of local food production, and the argument for SFSCs, that is local producers, becomes even more compelling.

October 2022