Soil Association report shows short food supply chains needed now

Shorter food supply chains can make the UK more resilient in the face of pandemics and climate change - but only with bold government intervention, according to a new Soil Association report.

With COVID-19 exposing cracks in our food system, the Shortening Supply Chains; Roads to Regional Resilience report looks at innovative farmers, businesses and councils already proving sustainable sourcing can be more resilient as well as being more environmentally friendly.

The report sets out that local and national government have key roles to play in incentivising regional and more sustainable production through redirecting the £2bn spent annually on public sector food.

It recommends re-writing public procurement regulations to allow a wider range of suppliers, no matter their size, to have flexible access to food contracts in places like schools and hospitals. It suggests moving away from the practice of having many fixed, high volume contracts with one large provider, which can lock out smaller and regional businesses.

Organic farmer Adrian Steele, one of the authors of the report and Organic Sector Development Advisor at the Soil Association, said, “Coronavirus has highlighted the fragility of our supply chains and has allowed us to see that shorter, more direct food networks can be more resilient.

'We need bold intervention from local and national governments to support a resilient food system in the face of climate change and pandemics.

“There are great examples already in the UK demonstrating that shorter supply chains can provide people with healthy and sustainable food sourced from their local area. But we also need the £2bn being spent on food in schools and hospitals each year to be invested in a mix of businesses – both large and small – that are working to protect climate, nature and public health.

'We also need agricultural policy to reward farmers for nature-friendly, agroecological farming.”

The research, funded by Friends Provident Foundation, highlights the lack of regulatory requirements for public sector organisations to source food that meets sustainability or regional sourcing requirements.

Best practice is led by those involved with voluntary schemes such as the Government’s Balanced Score Card and the Soil Association’s Food for Life Served Here award.

Establishing and enforcing sustainability regulations, the report advises, would drive up demand that could be further assisted by using the Agriculture Bill and post-Brexit farming policy to pay farmers to deliver “public goods” that look after the environment, water and air quality.

The report also recommends investing in creating local 'food hubs' that can co-ordinate collection, packing and distribution of regionally produced food, to allow smaller producers to sell food to people in their area without incurring big delivery costs.

Recommendations also include changing local authority planning policy to enable the regional food processing and infrastructure which would be necessary to be built, as well as investment in developing closer relationships between local food procurers, caterers and producers.

CASE STUDY: British short supply chains in practice
One company in the West of England is already proving that short supply chains can work both for university and school food contracts, as well as for local people buying their groceries.

Rich Osborn is Director of Fresh–range – a technology and logistics company that has established a regional hub serving home delivery as well as creating “dynamic food procurement” contracts that are putting local food onto school menus in Bath and North East Somerset and several universities across the region.

By breaking down previous conventional, lot-based contracts into specific product categories and allowing new entrants to supply at any time during the contract, dynamic food procurement allows smaller businesses to provide ingredients for school meals, even if they have only one or two products and a limited production capacity.

Working with Bath and North East Somerset, this pioneering mechanism appointed a mixture of large and smaller suppliers to meet the needs of approximately 42 school kitchens producing meals for 60 schools during a pilot period.

The company also co-ordinates produce from sustainable local suppliers into a home delivery service which has seen a surge in demand during the COVID-19 crisis.

With advice from the Soil Association, Fresh-range, food procurement practitioners, policy makers and producers, Crown Commercial Services is now putting in place a model for dynamic food procurement on a national scale. This will go live towards the end of 2020 in the pilot area of the South West of England.

The year-long pilot will focus on fresh meat, fruit and vegetables and will be evaluated with the intention of being rolled out across the whole of the UK. The trial has the potential to transform public sector food procurement, significantly shortening supply chains ensuring food quality and cost control, reducing carbon emissions and providing more support for local suppliers.

Osborn said, “Fresh–range collects and consolidates sustainable produce from dozens of food and drink producers and delivers to public sector kitchens like schools as well as to residents via home delivery.

'Growers and producers can join and leave the contract at any time and supply even small quantities of produce – providing smaller growers with access to public sector markets that they historically struggled to reach.

'Today we work with numerous producers, including organic, to supply a range of veg, milk, bread, eggs and dried goods to several large public sector organisations across Somerset including schools, Universities and a large visitor attraction.”