A timely opportunity for local food?

FFCC Wales Director Jon Parker reflects on whether recent developments in UK trade present a new opportunity for local, small-scale food systems.

6th September 2023

Over the recent months, much has been made of the new agricultural payment schemes being developed within the UK at both Westminster and devolved levels. They are closely bound to wider discussions around food security and the challenge of ensuring the availability of healthy, nutritious food in the midst of food inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.

I’ve been reading with interest the reaction to delays to UK border inspections – and reflections such as those by Jay Rayner on the risks associated. I am particularly struck by the extent to which the seafood sector has borne the brunt of new systems brought into place following the signing and implementation of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) and has been massively impacted by derogations that did not exist during the free trade era. COVID lockdowns further added to the industry’s woes. So, why is this important?

Without delving into the detail of the complex structure of the UK seafood industry, predominantly small operators (mostly under 10 FTE staff) enjoyed direct market access to the continent, but with Brexit, things became extremely difficult very quickly. In particular, the certification of consignments of shellfish landed by multiple vessels to a single haulier or merchant became widely publicised. This Brexit non-tariff barrier known as groupage was, for some businesses, a burden too far.

The UK fisheries sector was the poster child of Brexit, but we are now moving into a phase where other food products will be impacted from the opposite direction, entering the UK from the EC. While sitting at a French port waiting to board the ferry back to Plymouth quite a few years ago, I was struck by the number of lorries patiently waiting in line that were quite obviously stocked with organic fresh produce destined for one of the UK’s most successful box scheme operators. Will the issues we have seen in the shellfish and fisheries sector affect small EC producers and UK importers in the same way?

With the further delay in the UK border check regime and its inevitable implementation in the future, should we not look at this as an opportunity to really turn the dial on community growing to support local supply chains further? In Wales, seeing and hearing the progress on community growing makes me wonder if this puts local food producers in a position to take advantage of the situation. Are we now at a time where food inflation means that more resilient, smaller scale operations can become viable through co-operation, efficient co-ordination and create green employment?

Calls for a National Nature Service in England have been actioned in Wales with the development of Nature Service Wales that will provide a co-ordinating role for skills development for community growing and food production alongside nature. This, coupled with provision of the right support to communities to structure co-operation effectively could provide the impetus to mainstream community growing within the supply chain, contributing to job creation and prosperity. Welsh Government has made an excellent start on mapping the community food movement in Wales with its recently published report that will hopefully lead towards a Community Food Strategy for Wales.

Change in the food system is a constant, and as we work towards a net zero future, there can be no doubt that community growing can play a strong part in a fairer, more resilient and socially positive role in UK food system change.

Jon Parker is FFCC's Wales Director. Read his bio here