National Food Strategy – Response from the Countryside and Community Research Institute

This is a collective response by the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) at the University of Gloucestershire. We are one of the largest specialist UK rural research centres, working at the interface of agriculture, society and the environment on issues relevant to rural and urban development in the UK, Europe and further afield.

We welcome the creation of a National Food Strategy, the absence of which has been notable for decades. Its development is especially important given the complex and interconnected challenges facing the UK food and farming system. These include climate change, food poverty, obesity, and the focus and scale of future farm support, post-CAP. An integrated, balanced strategy is needed to promote long-term sector and system resilience, in line with the UK’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our comments are based on findings and insights of recent and current CCRI research.

  1. We have argued consistently that agri-food sustainability is a complex challenge requiring a strategy that addresses and works with the multidimensional and interconnected dynamics of contemporary food systems. The Strategy must consider economic, social, environmental, health and ethical performance. This approach is reflected in other national strategies (e.g. Canada, Netherlands). In two recent publications[1], we examined food sustainability across these five domains, providing a rationale for taking a multidimensional approach to food and farming policy.
  • Recent government, industry and third sector initiatives to reduce food waste, single-use plastics, and excessive meat consumption are welcome. However, research experience suggests that the level of structural change required to achieve sustainability in the food system (and other, interlinked systems) can only be attained through combined effort between government and industry, alongside individual consumer action and behaviour change. In other words, the strategy needs to be orientated towards a distributed, but planned and co-ordinated sequence of actions, not depending upon individual action alone (see[2], for example).
  • There is a significant body of work related to public procurement and the power of the public plate in driving system transformation. This has a track-record in the UK, but its potential has been limited by overly narrow interpretation of EU procurement regulation. Future public procurement could and should provide a new and potentially re-localised market for food producers in different regions of the UK. In a major Horizon 2020 project ROBUST, we are innovating to improve connections between rural and urban places. Our case study on a dynamic food procurement system (DPS), with Gloucestershire County Council, aims to develop DPS and include it in the new school food contract, using digital technology and distribution efficiency to allow smaller-scale producers to participate in certified procurement contracts[3]. Further significant opportunities exist, particularly in the NHS, which require investment in on-site kitchens in hospitals but, if supported, could be transformative for regional food systems.
  • The National Food Strategy provides an important opportunity to strengthen regionalisation in food economies. Dynamic procurement is a key element, but it warrants a more general approach. Our research has highlighted the multi-faceted value, to people, communities and the planet, of enabling local and regional food economies, including local and short food chains as well as innovations in cities’ and city-regions’ food supplies.[4] Currently, practical supply-chain obstacles limit the potential for regional networks to thrive, including the disappearance of critical intermediaries such as local abattoirs, producer hubs and buying clubs. Our work highlights the potential value of a national Strategy co-ordinating public and private funds and strategic investment to rebuild these links and grow regional food economies in partnership with producers, processors, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
  • In recent work we examined the development of contracts and other institutional arrangements to manage supply chains, including milk contracts.[5] We note that new market mechanisms are emerging to influence food supply and demand, embracing positive environmental outcomes and public goods linked to, for example, soil health, water quality and animal welfare. We see untapped potential to connect the food market economy more strongly to environmental performance, building on concepts like Landscape Enterprise Networks and Payment for Ecosystem Services. Many positive examples were analysed in our recent PEGASUS project (case studies include systems for grass-fed beef in Estonia, Bergamot and tomatoes in Italy, and mineral water in France)[6].
  • There could be a tendency for food strategy to concentrate upon land-based production, but in the UK, fisheries and fishing communities should also be a vital ingredient. CCRI has recent and relevant emerging research in this field, partnering with fisheries scientists and working with local communities to re-appraise the potential for sustainable and multifunctional approaches based around inshore product and new value chains[7].
  • Food strategies are developing at city, county and regional scales. Urban strategies particularly demonstrate the multidimensionality of food[8], and have emerged in the absence of national policy. Our research reveals that these projects compete unevenly with other urban environmental challenges[9]. Eco-technical analyses of city food systems need to be complemented with socio-cultural work to ensure that policies are regionally-relevant and culturally-embedded, thereby optimising innovation in urban food production, supply and entrepreneurialism[10].
  • In the climate change and ‘eat less meat’ domain the dominant narratives are polarised (plant-based diets vs livestock, vs protein alternatives)[11]. Over-simplified analysis can demonise farmers, particularly livestock farmers. Our ecosystems and agri-environmental research[12] suggests that such farmers can be part of the climate change solution, along with high-tech and traditional plant protein options, to achieve more culturally-sensitive and nature-friendly transformation.
  • Post-Brexit policy offers new opportunities, but existing positive efforts and initiatives in food, farming and environmental management remain potentially vulnerable to a strong liberal trade agenda that could encourage a race to the bottom in respect of sustainable food values and standards. These standards and accompanying assurances must be strengthened both domestically and in future trade agreements, to avoid undermining the quality and diversity of the UK environment and food and farming cultures, with long-term negative impacts on human health and well-being.     

Please do not hesitate to contact me for further information.

Yours faithfully,

Janet Dwyer MA PhD FRSA, ARAgS (UK), AA (France)
Director of CCRI and Professor of Rural Policy
President-elect of the UK Agricultural Economics Society

[1] Kirwan, J., Maye, D. and Brunori, G. (2017) Reflexive governance, incorporating ethics and changing understandings of food chain performance. Sociologia Ruralis, 357-377.

Kirwan, J., Maye, D. and Brunori, G. (2017) Acknowledging complexity in food supply chains when assessing their performance and sustainability. Journal of Rural Studies, 52, 21-32.

[2] Maye, D., Kirwan, J. and Brunori, G. (2019) Ethics and responsibilisation in agri-food governance: the single-use plastics debate and strategies to introduce reusable coffee cups in UK retail chains. Agriculture and Human Values, 36 (2), 301–312.

[3] August 2019: Exploring the potential of living labs as social innovations to enable disruption and change in food system governance (Maye, D. with Knickel, M., Keech, D. and Reed, M.). From disruptive to emancipatory politics: transforming food governance. RGS-IBG Annual Conference, RGS, London, 27th August – 30th August 2019.

[4] Maye, D. (2019) ‘Smart food city’: conceptual relations between smart city planning, urban food systems and innovation theory. City, Culture and Society, 16, 18-24.

Ilbery, B. and Maye, D. (2006) Retailing local food in the Scottish-English borders: a supply chain perspective. Geoforum, 37, 352-367.

Maye, D. and Ilbery, B. (2006) Regional economies of local food production: tracing food chain links between ‘specialist’ producers and intermediaries in the Scottish-English borders. European Urban and Regional Studies, 13, 4, 337-354.

Ilbery, B. and Maye, D. (2005) Alternative (shorter) food supply chains and specialist livestock products in the Scottish-English borders. Environment and Planning A, 37, 823-844.

Keech, D. (2016) Social enterprises with environmental objectives: saving traditional orchards in England and GermanyGeographical Journal. ISSN 0016-7398.

Maye, D., Kirwan, J., Schmitt, E., Keech, D. and Barjolle, D. (2016) PDO as a mechanism for reterritorialisation and agri-food governance: a comparative analysis of cheese products in the UK and Switzerland. Agriculture, 6 (4). pp. 54-69. ISSN 2077-0472.

[5] April 2019: Agricultural commodity markets and the role of contractualisation and cooperative governance to manage market uncertainty: new forms of institutional governance. D Maye. Economic Geography VIII – Culture, Diversity, Innovation and Markets, and the Evolution of the Space Economy. American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, Washington DC, April 3-7, 2018.

[6] See case studies

[7] Contact Drs Hannah Chiswell and Julie Urquhart for more details of ongoing projects with Defra sponsorship

[8] Curry, N., Reed, M., Keech, D., Maye, D. and Kirwan, J. (2014) Urban agriculture and the policies of the European Union: the need for renewal. Spanish Journal of Rural Development V (1), pp. 91-106.

[9] Reed, M., & Keech, D. (2018). The ‘Hungry Gap’: Twitter, local press reporting and urban agriculture activism. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 33(6), 558-568. doi:10.1017/S1742170517000448

[10] Keech, D. and Redepenning, M. (2019) Culturalisation and urban horticulture in two World Heritage Cities. Food, Culture and Society. ISSN 1552-8014 (In Press)

Grivins, M, Keech, D, Kunda, I and Tisenkopfs, T (2017) Bricolage for self-sufficiency: an analysis of alternative food initiatives structures. Special issue of Sociologia Ruralis. July.  Volume 57, Issue 3 .Pages 340-356. Published online 11th July 2017. DOI: 10.1111/soru.12171

[11] August 2019: What’s the beef?: the problematisation of meat eating and sustainable diets (Maye, D. with Urquhart, J., Fellenor, J., Barnett, J., Potter, C. and Luna, A). Trouble and hope: Food geographies ‘in’, ‘of’ and ‘for’ the Anthropocene. RGS-IBG Annual Conference, RGS, London, 27th August – 30th August 2019.

[12] Contact Drs Julie Ingram, Pete Gaskell, Professor Janet Dwyer, Jane Mills and Chris Short for more details.