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Transforming Governance and collaboration in the food system – learning from Local Food Councils

By Dr Ulrike Ehgartner, FixOurFood Research Associate, University of York

Our food system is in crisis. UK consumers are facing a serious hike in food prices, with 7.3 million adults and over 2.6 million children in the UK experiencing food insecurity. This number indicates a rise of UK household food insecurity by 57%, just from January to April this year, leading to a situation that the Bank of England recently described as “apocalyptic”. Data shows that over the past two years, prices of hundreds of popular items hiked by more than 20 per cent. Also affected are basic staple foods: just over the past year, prices of the UK’s cheapest supermarket rice and bread items have risen by 15%, and for the cheapest pasta by 50%. Also generally, not choosing the cheapest product of a category has become less affordable: in one study, for over two-thirds of the items monitored, the next item was at least 20% more expensive. Given these facts, it comes as no surprise that recent consumer surveys show that 92% of adults state their grocery bill has increased and 39% of adults report they have recently cut back on quantity and quality of the food they consume to be able to afford other essentials.

Policy reforms driven by austerity, which were more recently accelerated by Brexit and the Covid pandemic, have created a highly insecure situation for everyone. How this situation, which has come to be commonly labelled as ‘the cost of living crisis’, will further develop is uncertain with the impact of climate change and the Ukraine war on harvests still unfolding, and the full impact of the inflation yet to be felt. While many industries are affected, our food system is deeply interlinked with many areas, and particularly vulnerable to these uncertainties. Food supply chain and labour shortage issues due to Brexit and the Covid pandemic have caused ongoing challenges. Global fuel and gas shortages come with various direct and knock-on effects on the food industry, for example through increases in fertiliser prices.

Yet, already long before this crisis unfolded, consumer demand for cheap food was identified as the reason for the food industry’s failure to address its severe negative impact on the environment, farmer incomes and animal welfare. Compared to previous decades, we are paying much less for our food and are far removed from the true cost of food. In order to be able to feed ourselves, will we have to abandon plans to decarbonise the industry and exploit farmers, animals and our soils even more? Currently, short-term actions are taken, which indicate this is the only way forward. Decisions of major supermarkets to keep consumers and protect their market share by keeping prices low for consumers, will pass on the rising costs to manufacturers and farmers. Government decisions to delay the introduction of restrictions of multi-buy promotions and advertising of unhealthy food and drink, will not only come with an environmental cost, but will continue putting a strain on our National Health Service.

Over the past decades, we have become accustomed to the notion that such crises can solely be dealt with in ways that either squeeze the consumer or the farmer. However, there are also diverse examples of initiatives, often on a small-scale and local level, which show that another way is possible. Alternative business models such as cooperatives, food hubs, community farms, pantries and other initiatives for affordable food, create more balance in the food supply chain, whilst still making profits. Their models are often based on pursuing sufficient rather than maximised profits and on accepting smaller returns in the short term with the aim to continue and thrive on the long-term. Distributing their food outside the mainstream supply chain, they also introduce means of true cost accounting, which can help reformulate guidelines on an organisational level, inspire investors and set examples for policy makers in applying policy tools such as taxes, mandatory reporting, business investment loans and other incentives to drive improvements in human and planetary health.

Around the globe, partnerships between civil society and stakeholders from public institutions and businesses have trialled and supported the growth and long-term viability of such alternative food systems, enabling new food markets to emerge and food policies to change on a local level. So-called Food (Policy) Councils, or Food Boards, commonly emerge locally, often in cities, and involve various delegates from the different parts of the food system, for example consumers, members of community organisations, representatives of local authorities, farmers and other producers, civil society organisations, activists, retailers and educators. They create active dialogues and collaboration between actors from diverse sectors in order to discuss, coordinate, and influence the transformation towards a more equitable, sustainable and resilient food system and inform and empower citizens to become agents of change. Having emerged in the US in the 1980s, with numbers increasing both in the US and Canada comparatively since, they are a rather recent phenomenon in Europe. First to introduce the concept to Europe was Brighton and Hove in 2003, followed by various cities across Europe, such as Bristol in 2011. As members of Sustainable Food Places, a programme led by three national sustainable food organisations (the Soil Association, Sustain and Food Matters), there are currently 80 Local Food Partnerships in the UK, eight of which are based in Yorkshire, with more to establish in the near future.

The view that the cost of living crisis will inevitably make more and more people dependent on food banks and halt any efforts to decrease the negative environmental impact of food production and the exploitation of farmers, seems inevitable if we deal with issues in siloes. With people operating only within their own institutional boundaries and work areas, it seems as if, for example, climate security and food security are competing goals. Siloed, disjointed policy is increasingly becoming recognised, and was also singled out as a key concern in FixOurFood’s 3 Horizons local economy workshop series with key actors from the food system community in Yorkshire, including representatives of local food partnerships.

Food Policy Councils around the globe have in common that they break siloed thinking and take a systems approach instead, by putting food at the centre, and by supporting the creation of spaces in which alternatives to the mainstream food system work. As such, they provide avenues for transformation towards a food system that allows access to healthy food for everyone, without compromising fairness for farmers, animal welfare or the environment. They can encourage cross-sectoral initiatives and food policy that addresses issues in multidimensional ways and inspire owners of major food businesses to take long-term approaches that prioritise supply chain resilience over short-term returns. An inspiring example that we can learn from is the Cologne Food Council. Founded in 2016 as the first of its kind in Germany, today it coordinates a Network of Food Councils from across Germany and neighbouring countries. Alongside encouraging the establishment of individual Food Councils to impact the food system on the level of their cities or rural places, it also promotes the cooperation between them on a regional and national level. The seeming tension between fair access to food for consumers and fair conditions for farmers and the natural environment constitutes an open topic of discussion within this network, practising food democracy through efforts to bring the question of the true price of food into a citizen assembly context.

It is vital, now more than ever, to foster shared learning across these place-based networks. An approach that focuses on Yorkshire as a region allows to locate local resources and to improve coordination between existing initiatives and programs. The establishment of localised routes to market can enable fairer conditions for regenerative farmers and small-scale producers who operate on sustainable business models. If such routes become more accessible for suppliers and reach consumers of different backgrounds, for example through localised food procurement in schools, the provision of food from such suppliers becomes normalised. This can allow consumers to access healthy and sustainable food, without having to trade off their own livelihoods against those of farmers.