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Shaping local food systems to deliver for people and nature

Marcus Nyman, Senior Policy Officer at RSPB writes about how local food systems benefit communities and nature though shorter, decentralised supply chains, more diverse agroecological production systems, independent producers and retailers, and a greater farmer-focus.

July 2021

Today sees the release of a new report from Sustain and the RSPB, outlining ways in which local food systems could yield benefits for people, the economy and nature. At the outset of the pandemic, and in the midst of the first lockdown, many grappled with the immediate question of how to ensure supply and access to safe and nutritious food. One clear response to restrictions on movement was to seek out food from more local sources, with veg box schemes in particular seeing a rise of around 111%.

Simultaneously, people have realised the importance and value of nature and green spaces close to where they live, with research suggesting 87% of people in England agreed living close to wildlife-rich spaces was an advantage during the pandemic. Such value has been made more apparent by a health crisis putting strain on our bodies and minds, for which time in nature has provided one source of relief. The local – the nearby, the familiar, the accessible – clearly matters and will continue to, not least in terms of food and the many ways it impacts our personal, social and economic lives, but also the natural world too.

At the moment when we begin to pull ourselves out of the crisis, this report presents the case that local food systems can help deliver real benefits for our towns, our communities and our landscapes. It moves the conversation away from “local” as simply a marker of geographical proximity towards the qualities that set such systems apart, namely the relationships that underpin them. This generally means shorter, decentralised supply chains, more diverse agroecological production systems, independent producers and retailers, and a greater farmer-focus. It suggests that a relatively modest increase to 10 per cent retail share for “localised” food could yield 200,000 more jobs across the country, while money spent through local systems has a greater multiplier for local economies than equivalent spending in supermarkets.

The ability for local food to deliver for nature has been less well articulated in the past , but there are encouraging examples of success out there. The report draws on a large array of case studies, including those involving farmers taking action for nature on their land and being supported to do so through access to local food infrastructure and local markets. Such systems can provide a more stable base of customers, create a market for diverse products (rather than relying on a small number of commodities), enable farmers to realise a greater proportion of the value of produce, build awareness around nature-friendly food among consumers, and encourage less reliance on distant and unbalanced supply chains. Such factors are key not only in the context of a farming system facing transition but also one facing climate-related disruption, meaning those most adaptable, diverse and resilient are more likely to survive. Similarly, there are potential climate, GHG emission and waste advantages to a more localised systems that the report sets out.

The report, however, does not present local food as a panacea or suggest we can do without supermarkets or international trade. There are things that local food systems alone cannot deliver but they need to be a significant part of the mix. Indeed, on the eve of the publication of the National Food Strategy , more than ever we need clarity and purpose in the food systems we will pursue and the outcomes we wish them to deliver. With this in mind, the report offers a series of recommendations for how we can encourage development of local food systems to the benefit of people and nature. These include:

  • Creation of a Local Food Investment Fund to provide strategic support for sustainable local food systems, as part of the planned Government funding for local areas, such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
  • A growth plan to deliver a 10% retail market share for non-multiples by 2030, to help diversify supply chains.
  • Establishment of local food partnerships in all local authority areas.
  • Rollout of dynamic procurement to 33% of the country by the end of 2025.

The report can be accessed here, alongside a briefing for policymakers.

Marcus Nyman is Senior Policy Officer at RSPB.

Follow: @RSPBNews and @Marcnyman

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.