We make costly contingencies to protect the nation from a host of distant threats, yet give relatively little attention to local food systems, despite the huge potential costs of disruption to our food supply. Developing strong local food systems should be at the heart of plans for societal resilience.
With less than 2% of the labour force engaged in agriculture it can easily feel like something that needn’t concern society as a whole. However, access to food is of fundamental importance to society, and losing the ability to feed ourselves could have profound implications. We currently import 40% of all our food (up from 20% in the mid 80s), with some projecting this will rise further in coming years.
Our food system feels well established, and we would not expect it to break down without major shocks. However, are major disruptions to international trade or other serious shocks to the food system really less likely than those perceived security threats we do prepare for – such as terrorism or war? Moreover, those major shocks we do think it’s worth preparing for could also have significant effects on our food system. Things like disruptions to international trade and prices, climate change, war, and financial crises all pose potential risks to the UK’s ability to access food.
To build resilient local food systems we need many things: including skilled landworkers, strong local distribution systems, and high quality soil. At the moment all of these are in decline. Skills deficits and an ageing population of farmers are big issues for UK agriculture. Supermarkets dominate distribution, at the expense of both other distribution networks and also farmers who are forced to take cut prices. Years of intensive farming have left UK soil in trouble, with an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil lost every year.
Community food growing organisations are taking important steps to help address these issues. ‘Farmstart’ programmes are training a new generation of young farmers in sustainable growing methods. Others are taking innovative approaches to producing and selling food that show local food systems are possible. Many groups focus not just on improving the soil, but also on a whole host of other ecological considerations such as biodiversity and water quality. Moreover, these projects are not ‘open in case of emergency’. Rather, they develop a built-in ability to bounce back from shocks and adjust to longer term change, whilst also moving the current system in a positive direction.
However, at the moment, many of these groups struggle to access the land they need to develop. They also face an incredibly tough business climate, as neither their contribution to resilience, nor the social and environmental value they produce is properly compensated.
With help from the Friends Provident Foundation we are working with three food growing groups to explore their contribution to local economic resilience, and to help access land and develop their models. We are also looking at the role of local authorities to understand their needs in relation to local economic resilience, and promote the potential of food growing groups to meet them. For updates on this, and all our other projects, sign up to our newsletter.