Sustaining fair, equitable supply chains

FFCC's Lucy Bates explores what's needed to ensure good, nutritious food is available at all times to all citizens.

8th June 2023

Last month’s Food Security Summit – and the controversy surrounding it – was the latest smoke signal in a long line of fires: staggering food inflation, devastating levels of hunger, empty supermarket shelves and struggling farmers, to mention just a few. The policy announcements made around the time of the event included a welcome review of the egg and horticulture sectors for supply chain fairness. But significant questions remain about how easy it is for citizens to get hold of enough healthy, well produced, food. And without this – what does food security really mean?

Underlying the question of how to provide real food security to citizens across the UK are, of course, many other questions. How can there be investment, at pace and scale, in the rural economies and communities that produce the food we eat? How can this be done while making the best use of land? Where are the untapped opportunities around public procurement, town and rural planning? How can existing environmental legislation be enforced to enable sustainable food production and distribution that works for all? Innovative solutions exist but they require policymakers to integrate social and environmental resilience with long term economic and land use planning. The changes to seasonal labour quotas and farm shop planning legislation, and promise of investment in export promotion, are unlikely be enough to overcome the structural challenges now facing the UK.

Organisations as diverse in scope and scale as the WHO, Food Ethics Council, Sustain and IPES have been working on food supply chain fairness and sustainability for decades. Their work has sought to answer these questions balancing the needs of landowners, farmers, processors, wholesalers and retailers. They have also explored the consequences of inaction and the cost of failing to deliver nutritionally and environmentally sustainable food.

In spite of many practical and achievable proposals, transformative action has arguably been slowed by a combination of market forces, a lack of strategic political direction and conflicting priorities between interdependent parts of the supply chain. Farmers who want to reduce on-farm food waste, for example, find that many retailers still have purely cosmetic standards that leave good, nutritious produce unavailable to shoppers.

However, even against an increasingly complex backdrop of food shortages, food waste and food poverty, creative and inclusive pathways are emerging. In our work at FFCC, we sometimes hear people polarise the potential solutions; it’s either cheap food in the big four supermarkets for the majority, or ‘artisan’, high welfare, high-cost food from the farm shops and the ‘posh’ grocers for the wealthy. But of course, the real picture is much more nuanced. In the middle ground between these two extremes lies much potential for development. Grower and farmer cooperatives that keep more value for producers, well-resourced corner shops that can tackle the healthy food deserts, different distribution and retail models, and new legislation to safeguard and value producers’ high standards, are being developed and scaled up, and offer intriguing new models for the future.

In the first of our symposia in January, we uncovered real consensus among experts in finance and farming (read more here). There was broad agreement that risks and profits are not currently distributed equitably between growers, processors and retailers. Many at the symposium felt that, as targets for climate mitigation and biodiversity expand and increase, there is a risk that this will only worsen without clear regulation and targeted investment. It was clear that critical questions remain about the best ways to create and sustain equitable supply chains. But what are some of the complexities and contradictions in the current system? Where are the barriers to change? And what steps can we take now to understand this landscape better?

We'll be convening the next symposium in June to consider these questions. It's also an important conversation for the wider farming community, and one which will no doubt be at the forefront of many people’s minds at Groundswell regenerative farming festival later in June. We will listen to the experiences of those already shaping this 'middle ground' and investigate where shifts are gaining momentum. In the weeks to come, we will share some of what we’ve learned about how to move towards a more equitable, sustainable, and ultimately resilient, supply of food.

Lucy Bates is FFCC's Farming Transition Co-Lead