The social cost of our food supply chains – inefficient and unfairly traded

“Food supply chains in Europe are extraordinarily long and complex, involving multiple food business entities and opaque corporate structural engineering, which increases the difficulty for adequate inspection and regulation, and opens the door for fraud and criminal activity. It makes it difficult to work out who is responsible for what, and who’s to blame when things go wrong – see the lurid story in the Observer”.

alyn smith mepThese are the words of Scottish MEP Alyn Smith, SNP member of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, in an article published on the website of the European Parliament’s Information Office in the United Kingdom.

He adds that a by-product of our system is that about 90 million tonnes of agricultural produce is wasted annually in Europe and about a third of the food for human consumption is wasted globally.

This happens at many points along the food supply chain, from harvesting losses to supermarket quality controls and – after sale – through poor purchasing decisions or food management by some consumers who only consider the sticker price.

The social costs – what kind of a world is it when:

  • those who till the soil to fill our dinner-plates can barely make enough to survive for another planting season,
  • milk and alcohol can retail at a lower price in the supermarkets than water,
  • disgusting slop can be served up to our children and our hospital patients on the grounds of “cost competitiveness”,
  • the number of malnourished people is roughly equivalent to the number of obese people
  • and when the fanatic search for lower prices amidst intense competition leads to the entry of the Mafia into our food chain?

 “We need nothing less than a food revolution”

Alyn Smith believes that this can be achieved through buying local produce and notes anecdotal evidence that sales at local butchers are up 20-25%:

“Short supply chains, farmers markets and quality labels cut out the middle men, enabling direct purchase by consumers and a guarantee for transparency and quality: it boosts the local economy as well, protects diversity in the retail sector and helps keep our farmers on the land. The Scottish Government have already invested £200,000 in farmers markets, and promoted education about healthy eating in schools.

A call for fair trade in Britain

“And we need to push harder for reforms to the EU’s competition rules, to ensure farmers can get the bargaining power they need for a fair price, and reduce the power of supermarkets to crush their smaller brethren”.

”Let’s seize the opportunity, not just to fix the immediate problems of fraud in food labelling and adequate inspections and controls, but to fix our food chain to make it fairer for producers and consumers alike”.

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Calls to support local food webs

From field to fork: The value of England’s local food webs, a report by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England was released earlier this month.

Farming Online reports that it indicts government food policy and the supermarket model, revealing the role both have played in undermining the UK’s local food networks and jeopardising the vibrancy of rural regions.

Evidence has been provided by a five year research project ‘Mapping Local Food Webs,’ which examined 19 locations across England and identified over 2,500 local food businesses, over 800 outlets and 1,700 producers.

It includes information that:

  • local food outlets serve 16.3 million customers a week;
  • local food sales through independent outlets are worth £2.7 billion a year to the economy;
  • These food outlets support over 100,000 jobs, of which over 61,000 are due directly to local food sales.

The report states that such local networks support diversity, distinctiveness and innovation in the food and farming sectors, broaden choice for shoppers, promote seasonality and reduce food miles. Though researchers found that money spent within local food networks is recirculated in the local economy, amplifying the positive effect on communities, the number of supermarkets continues to rise and encroach on food retailers in marketplaces and town centres:

  • between 1980 and 2007 the number of hypermarkets and superstores in the UK grew from 300 to 1,500 by 2007, and the number is increasing;
  • visits to supermarket chains accounted for 77% of main shopping trips in the locations studied by CPRE;
  • supermarket chains have expanded their share of the market, grown in size and moved to the edge of towns;
  • over the same period, local speciality stores such as butchers and greengrocers have been in freefall;
  • town centre vacancy rates now average 14% and can be as high as 30% per cent.

The Environmental Audit Committee has criticised the government’s lack of action on creating a sustainable food policy and called for more government action to support local food webs, with increased consideration for sustainable food procurement.

CPRE is calling on local authorities to form partnerships to develop food strategies and for community groups to become more engaged in promoting local food. The organisation also wants more commitment to local food from supermarkets, which would help support local economies and reduce the businesses’ environmental impact.

The full report can be downloaded here.

A CPRE fact sheet detailing facts uncovered over the course of the group’s research is available here.