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Short supply chains – the antidote to food scandals?

Chain Consumers are increasingly interested in where there food comes from and how it arrives on their plate. Campaigning organisations have for years argued that food chains are too complex and too long, meaning that consumers are ‘disconnected’ from knowing about their food and its origins. ‘Reconnecting’ consumers with their food has been up and down political agendas for governments and food agencies ever since the ‘Mad Cow’ scare of the late 1980s and the ‘Foot and Mouth’ crisis of 2001. One way of achieving this reconnection is to ‘shorten’ food chains, and this has recently been the topic of a study carried out by Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology and Food Security (CAFS).

CAFS was commissioned by the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development, part of the European Commission, to carry out research into short food supply chains.

The European Commission is interested in protecting the income of farmers and capturing the added value of short food supply chains by creating a labelling scheme to support farmers in marketing their products locally. The European Commission is keen to understand if a labelling scheme, which is accepted Europe-wide, will help consumers identify short food supply chains and protect the incomes of the farmers in the chains. There is no official definition of a short food supply chain but it is widely considered to be either a local or direct sale from farmer/producer to consumer, either in person, or via the internet.

As part of the research CAFS looked at evidence about the social, economic and environmental impact of short food supply chains in Europe. The first step for CAFS was to create a systematic literature review, the first of its kind in this subject. Dr Moya Kneafsey, Principal Investigator, explained: ‘This was a huge review covering evidence from 27 countries across Europe and over 300 research papers. We found plenty of qualitative data but not so much economic data which made it difficult to tackle the question of economic impact. What we did establish was that farmers using short food chains put a strong emphasis on high quality fresh food and that many of the farms use organic, or similar, production methods. We also found that consumers in these short chains are extremely committed to their purchases. Despite changes in the economic climate these ‘ethical’ consumers have maintained their bite of the market.’

As part of the research CAFS looked at evidence about the social, economic and environmental impact of short food supply chains in Europe. The first step for CAFS was to create a systematic literature review, the first of its kind in this subject. Dr Moya Kneafsey, Principal Investigator, explained: ‘This was a huge review covering evidence from 27 countries across Europe and over 300 research papers. We found plenty of qualitative data but not so much economic data which made it difficult to tackle the question of economic impact. What we did establish was that farmers using short food chains put a strong emphasis on high quality fresh food and that many of the farms use organic, or similar, production methods. We also found that consumers in these short chains are extremely committed to their purchases. Despite changes in the economic climate these ‘ethical’ consumers have maintained their bite of the market.’

Moya and her research team created a database of 84 examples of short food supply chains, with at least one  example from each of the 27 European Member States. The database includes a variety of foods and a number of different schemes including community supported agriculture, box delivery schemes and farm shops. The database showed that overall, the schemes emphasised their social contribution even more than their economic and environmental impact. Not only do these short supply chains deliver high quality, extremely traceable food, but they also aspire to educate and inform consumers, develop skills, support resilient local economies and even contribute to social inclusion. Market growth or commercialisation is not always the main aim for producers involved in short supply chains, but they do want to be able to sustain livelihoods and local economies.

The researchers then carried out three case studies; a family farm offering direct sales in Austria, a producer consumer co-operative running an internet based local delivery scheme in France, and a local food shop in Hungary. Moya continued: ‘The case studies revealed a number of factors including the importance of shared ethical and moral values between producers and consumers about fairness, environmental sustainability and care for local cultural resources. They also flagged up the existence of ‘false’  producers who take advantage of  consumer interest in buying local produce and sell goods which are not genuinely local.’

The final report to the European Commission offered a range of pros and cons on the subject of a labelling scheme. Globally, arguments in favour of a label are that it may potentially bring more recognition, clarity, protection and value added to the short supply chains. Arguments against are more centred on the possible absence of benefits, and the potential costs which might be incurred.

While labelling might help consumers to reduce their difficulties in finding or spotting short food supply chain products, it would not address the problem of lack of availability and access to produce from named farms or the barriers to small-scale producers seeking to develop short food supply chains, especially in business start-up phase. This instead requires solutions around logistics, marketing, and public procurements. Regulating activity should not be restricted to labelling but should include other policy tools such as financial incentives, training and exchange of knowledge and skills, the development of regulatory and administrative frameworks.

Moya concluded: ‘A full package of support would be a strong recommendation to the European Commission. Short food supply chains generate positive social impacts, including health and wellbeing dividends which are generated through access to quality foods, green spaces, and better sense of community. Supporting these schemes brings much wider benefits to society than simply knowing where our food comes from.’

The European Commission will present the findings of the research to the European Parliament in January 2014. CAFS will also continue the debate about short food supply chains through an event on 3 July 2013, hosted in Coventry. Guest Speaker Professor Tim Lang, famed for coining the phrase ‘food miles’, will offer a thought-provoking reflection on the UK food system.

Photo credit: babasteve / Foter.com / CC BY

Words: Katie Southwell

This article appeared originally in the Spring 2013 edition of Innovate, the applied research magazine produced by Coventry University.

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