How is 'the local' framed in UK system food debates? A review of mainstream and local food sector reports during the Covid-19 pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic shook the UK’s food system, highlighting differences in long and short supply chains and their ability to respond and cope with disruption. Where long supply chains revealed weakness and suffered from the disruption, especially in the first few weeks of the pandemic, short supply chains stepped up to fill in these gaps and helped the vulnerable. Various reports were published during this time to highlight the relative strengths and weaknesses in supply chains and changes in consumer habits, including from the perspective of local food systems’ actors. The pandemic also coincided with the government’s release of the Agricultural Transition Plan 2021-2024, as well as the National Food Strategy.
In this report, we review a selection of key documents (evidence papers, reports, manifestos and strategies) published during the pandemic (Spring 2020 - end of 2021) which examine local food chains and the UK food system, including analysis from non-governmental, government, science and industry organisations. We use these materials to assess how the UK’s local food sector was framed and understood during the first two years of the pandemic (impacts, responsiveness, adaptability, contribution to system resilience, etc.), and to understand what visions and recommendations were being proposed for the sector going forward. Due to differences in perspective and their approach to the food system and supply chains, we group the organisations who have published the reports into two main sets of actors: a ‘local food movement group’ and a ‘mainstream food system group’, the latter including policy, science and industry.
Our analysis reveals that:
• There is an evident split between those who call for an urgent strategy to create resilience where they posit the food system has failed, and others who claim an existing level of resilience that needs to be strengthened.
• There are significant differences between the local food movement group and mainstream food system group in the way local food is framed, understood and imagined as a pathway for systemic food system resilience and security.
• Central to this difference is how the two groups position local food in the wider UK food system. For the local food movement group, re-localising food supply chains should be a central part of an improved UK food system, a means to provide multi-benefit solutions (sustainable, fair, etc.), and build capacity for resilience. In contrast, the mainstream food system group focuses on how to support the current system, which it sees as largely resilient. The reports from this group emphasised tweaks (such as making better use of new technologies) to buffer the just-in-time system of supply chain organisation.
• In terms of UK food system resilience for the future, and the place of local food within that food future, recommendations from local food movement bodies focused on supporting local food initiatives and short supply chains through funding, infrastructure and skills support. The pandemic was viewed as providing a test of local food resilience, and the initiatives in the main were viewed to have proved their resilient and adaptive capacity. This outcome, these reports concluded, should support further investment in distributed systems, and so is an opportunity to better fund and support the sector.
• The mainstream food system group has a more circumspect approach to future resilience regarding local food, in which the focus is on public procurement and associated technology developments. These are posited as a key way to shorten food chains, in part framed as a market opportunity for smaller producers to access new markets via local authority anchor institutes.
• The interests of the mainstream and local food groups align around public procurement, which featured prominently in local food movement reports as well as in the mainstream corpus, e.g. in Recommendation 13 of the National Food Strategy (The Plan).
• There is no discussion of ‘local food’ in Defra’s Agricultural Transition Plan 2021-2024, and caution around the concept of ‘local’ in the National Food Strategy (Part 1), stemming from historical issues over limits to self-sufficiency.