Let's grow our own

By Martin Yarnit

13th August 2020

In this third of a series of blogs, Martin Yarnit argues that improving the UK’s food self-sufficiency means improving the bargaining power of fruit and vegetable producers, doubling the land area devoted to horticulture and encouraging more people into the sector.

Food hubs in the US have proved their capacity in enabling market access for small producers. They have also demonstrated their potential for expansion. Philadelphia based Common Market has spread down the Atlantic coast and has extended operations to Texas. Until recently, similar UK initiatives have been few, usually box schemes, and mainly small with some notable exceptions like Abel and Cole, a private limited company, with a turnover of £65m and employing 567 people, closely followed by Riverford, based in Devon, which delivers 47,000 boxes a week around the UK with a turnover of £52m. One of the few hubs that is not a box scheme is Manchester Veg People, a co-op of local organic veg growers and local food businesses working together to supply quality, local produce to restaurants and caterers in Greater Manchester. LIDS in Liverpool does a similar job.

Now, perhaps stimulated by increasing awareness of our national food insecurity in the face of the triple crises - climate change, Brexit and C19 – we are witnessing a flurry of development. New initiatives are exploiting the value of the internet in shortening supply chains and taking advantage of the possibilities of public procurement policy. Open Food Network (OFN) UK, which provides a digital platform for various types of hub, has been awarded £377,000 over four years by the National Lottery Digital Fund. The OFN Platform is designed to work for groups of producers and to work for hubs retailing produce made by others. Newly launched Kent Food Hub is designed for this latter function. Free Range, based in the South West, delivers direct to home as well as supplying institutional consumers. The Better Food Shed, in Barking, east London, is using the internet to better coordinate supply and demand and therefore to reduce food waste. The Soil Association has called on government – local and national – to use planning policy to incentivise food hubs and associated retail and processing developments. It also points to the need for support for infrastructure including IT systems. [1]

As important as strengthening the infrastructure of local food distribution is the expansion of horticulture itself. An important legacy of the Making Local Food Work programme of the National Lottery was the popularisation of small scale market gardens in urban areas, in schools, hospitals and other public places.[2] These have a contribution to make to increasing the area under fruit and vegetables and also to raising public awareness of the value of plant diets. But the ambition of doubling the UK’s land area devoted to horticulture, in order to achieve self-sufficiency, demands radical change.[3]

As a first step, local government and other public bodies (hospitals and utilities, for example) should identify surplus land suitable for horticulture and make it available through grants and loans. In addition, local and national government should create local and regional plans setting out goals for expansion in the number of producers and the size of their holdings.

Alongside a minority of large scale holdings, UK horticulture suffers from a dependence on a multitude of very small farms and market gardens. Beyond the threshold of 1.5-2 acres, a holding that can be managed by a couple and which just about generates a living income, producers have to employ additional labour that demands a greater investment in land and equipment (a tractor, for example). In areas of the country where suitable farming land is available and affordable, there is a pressing need for financial support – grants and loans – to incentivise new entrants to horticulture and also to enable existing producers to increase their land holdings. Also crucial is an expansion in apprenticeships and training for horticulture.

How fearful should supermarkets and the other traditional intermediaries be about this prospect? They have shown an remarkable ability to adapt to sudden change in the midst of the C19 crisis and they (mostly) have impressive reserves to fund new directions. But they are also vulnerable to the disruptive power of the internet. While Amazon, Deliveroo and Uber represent an undesirable model of corporate dominance, there is no denying the speed with which they have emerged to re-focus consumer power away from traditional retail outlets. If consumers discover that a combination of

1. the wide choice and accessibility of the supermarkets

2. better living standards for locally identifiable, small producers

3. a more sustainable approach to farming

are all within their grasp through new intermediaries, the impact on the nation’s diet, farming and food distribution could be epochal.

[1] The Soil Association (2020) Shortening Supply Chains, p. 17

[2] The Making Local Food Work programme brought together a consortium of national organisations working to improve the sustainability of community food enterprises such as co-operatively managed farmers’ markets; community owned village shops; country markets; sustainable food hubs; food co-ops and buying groups; and community supported agriculture - all of which bring producers and consumers closer together. Making Local Food Work was co-ordinated by the Plunkett Foundation and funded by the Changing Spaces programme of the Big Lottery.

[3] This assumes that to move from 50-55% to 100% self-sufficiency means moving from 160,000 to about 320,000 hectares, if land productivity remains constant. Although the study by the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership, Best Use of UK Agricultural Land, suggests a higher target area. See table Additional Demand by 2030, p. 20

Martin Yarnit has had a career in education innovation. He now focuses his research on sustainable food production and distribution. He has built a cooperatively run village shop and local food centre and received Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funding to study food hubs and cooperatives in the U.S. and Italy.