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Can localising food tackle inequalities?

May 11th 2020

Matt Reed & Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins discuss emerging lessons from lockdown on their research into more localised food supply chains

Covid-19 has made it clear that our contemporary food system does not work for many people. Empty supermarket shelves will symbolise life in lockdown for years to come. We now know that the problems are caused not by some panic-buying a lot, but by all of us buying a little extra. The system buckled.

Our food system was already insecure. In his timely book Feeding Britain, Tim Lang shows how supermarkets’ just-in-time delivery systems and supply chains are always fragile. Here in Wales, our farmers depend on exports, and our dinners on imports. Many of the most vulnerable in society depend on foodbanks – and foodbanks depend on donations they are now no longer receiving.

Food does not create poverty. But our food system exacerbates inequalities. Behind a seeming cornucopia lie stark choices: to skip meals, to dump milk, to accept low pay. A system that produces so many insecurities cannot sustain us, let alone future generations. How can change be made?

Lessons from the living lab

As researchers, we both work on making the food system more sustainable and equitable. If physical scientists have a laboratory to experiment in, then we believe social scientists should work out in the world: a living lab. We share our labs with local government and civil society partners here in Wales and across the border. Together, we envision, experiment with and evaluate ways to change our local food economies.

For two years, we’ve been examining how local government can make strategic changes to influence the food system including:

  • Bringing smaller producers into food procurement, using council spending to support a growing local economy.
  • Shorten supply chains to help make households and communities more resilient.
  • Use data to identify and develop local market opportunities.

By sharing experiences between Monmouthshire and neighbouring Gloucestershire, we’ve also been learning what differences Welsh and UK Government policies make. That helps us reflect on how future policies can be more enabling, and how local lessons can be scaled.

Lessons from lockdown

Then came lockdown. As food challenges became more urgent, our living labs could offer little help for empty shelves and food bank emergencies. Life in lockdown is a new kind of lab, and we are all living it day by day.

At the same time, localising food is now very relevant. Our discussions of supply contracts, listing websites, veg boxes, community schemes and local markets have become a wealth of evidence to draw upon. We’re now assisting a range of local and national groups to draw upon what works in Wales and internationally.

Our first lessons as researchers in the lockdown laboratory are:

  • Research can be more agile, using ‘good enough’ data to respond and move quickly.
  • Video conferencing and email can make for meaningful engagement – group discussions and formal meetings can be too slow.
  • We cannot include everybody, but we can be ethical and open in what we are doing.

There are lessons for those who might want to work with researchers, too.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask. Local universities are more willing and able than you may realise.
  • Research benefits more than national governments and big companies. Seemingly small projects can be very strategic.

We know that working together takes time. We also know that there are practical outcomes – and tackling the flaws in our food system needs that work. Our next challenge is to move the living lab from experiment to action. A fair and sustainable future food system will involve much more than re-stocked shelves.

Dr Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins is Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University and Dr Matt Reed is Associate Professor in Food Citizenship at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire

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