Brexit, Covid-19 and most recently the Suez Canal debacle have all highlighted the fragility of long, convoluted supply chains with numerous middlemen. But at the other end of the spectrum, micro food networks can also be susceptible to bad weather, sudden changes in demand or simply lack of footfall.
By their very nature, hyperlocal supply chains can potentially limit the diversity of available produce, while tight geographical boundaries can translate to fewer customers.
So could regionalisation be the answer to future-proofing our farming system and empowering citizens by ensuring known provenance, while also creating more resilient food networks that can weather the coming storms?
Gareth Roberts, co-founder of Regather, a cooperative supplying organic fruit and veg boxes to 800 homes in Sheffield, thinks it’s all about finding a balance.
“There just isn’t enough comprehension of the geography of food systems,” says Roberts, who is working hard to increase the proportion of locally grown produce that Regather sells, but prefers to use the term ‘localised’ rather than local. He explains that whether we like it or not, we are firmly embedded in a globalised food system and simply switching from one extreme to the other may produce a different but still undesirable set of outcomes.
Ultimately it’s a trade-off, according to Roberts. Longer supply chains might mean that seasonal produce can be grown more efficiently in its natural climate. If that same produce is grown locally, farmers might be forced to add more pesticides and fertilisers to produce the necessary yield, or perhaps turn to polytunnels to recreate warmer climes with much higher energy inputs.
“We’re a long way off a thriving regional food system but we’re working towards it. At the right scale, somewhere between small and enormous, there’s got to be a balance that allows for skilled growers to navigate the seasons in a way that keeps things viable.”
Of course, there’s no one size fits all, and British farmland is far from homogenous, but if a complex mix of landscapes is the starting point, farming decisions about what to grow can be based on what is optimal for certain soils and climates.
Box schemes like Regather base their buying models on this; buying from where things grow best geographically. “Customers make an informed decision to hand over that choice in return for trust and that allows us and other schemes to maintain our market share,” says Roberts.
“As buyers we can then get the best seasonal produce that’s geographically available. By its very nature, this type of food system is more resilient, but it’s driven by consumer behaviour and that shift in mindset is key.”
A shift in agricultural practices is important, too. Farming is “a force for change” according to the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s Our Future, Our Land report that lays out plans for a fourth agricultural revolution, “transitioning to agroecological farming by 2030 to tackle soil erosion, loss of wildlife and genetic diversity”. Agroecology combines agriculture with ecological principles, with particular focus on small-scale farms.
In fact, more than 50 per cent of fruit and veg are grown on farms smaller than 20 hectares, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has declared 2021 the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables globally. A recent study by the University of British Columbia in Canada and published in the journal Nature, concluded that small farms tend to have higher crop yields than large farms, and host more biodiversity.
Tapping into this network of smaller farms could be key to the transition to agroecology. Gavin Shelton, founder of CoFarm in Cambridge, wants to replicate his pilot urban community farm with at least one in every local authority by 2030; that’s about 450 across the UK.
By eventually farming up to 500 acres at each CoFarm, he hopes to contribute a substantial amount of food to local communities. “We need an agroecological future – agroecology ticks all of the boxes for how to get to a sustainable food system, which is fair and nobody is exploited. So by scaling up in this way, we can direct profits back to ecosystems and prioritise access to healthy food,” he says.
Sharing knowledge will be key to making this model work, both in terms of what a specific microclimate is best suited to, and also what people most want to eat in that area – in Cambridge that has meant dedicating one polytunnel to Asian veg and curry leaves as requested by the Indian diaspora.
“Last year we grew 55 different types of vegetables on our pilot site – it’s all about adapting to local circumstances,” adds Shelton. “It’s resilience in its broadest sense – we’re trying to do something quite holistic with CoFarm, from improving health and wellbeing, to restoring natural capital, to producing great food. The current food system is quite extractive in economic terms but we think it can be used to build more inclusive economies by enabling fairer access at a local level.
“Hyperlocal is a really good place to get to if we can get there, with a bit of a regional buffer built in. It would lead to enhanced food sovereignty and food security, not increased vulnerability,” comments Shelton, who argues that making food supply chains more local results in simpler distribution, lower transport costs, less food waste and no need for plastic packaging. “We’re dealing with food metres not food miles,” he adds.
This article was initially published in issue 6 of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu by clicking here.