Duncan Catchpole, founder and owner of Cambridge Organic Food Co., and an entrepreneur and author, talks to us about his new release, Local Food Ecosystems: How Food Can Help Create a More Sustainable Food System. Duncan advocates for system change, painting the scene of how a transition towards a local food ecosystem brings local communities together to create a vibrant, thriving, healthy space, which is good for the wellbeing of people, planet and nature.

What is a local food hub?

A ‘food hub’ could be described as a space (physical or virtual, temporary or permanent) for the convening of food enterprises and their products. Typically, these enterprises come from a local geographical area and have shared values (such as environmental sustainability and artisanal production). Coming together this way brings mutual benefit to the enterprises who are participating, such as access to markets and economies of scales. And this can also bring social and environmental benefits, such as a shorter supply chains and improved transparency. The role of the food hub is to support this community of enterprises through the provision of services and facilities.

Does a local food ecosystem increase food resilience?

A very emphatic yes! ‘Just in time’ food deliveries have been exposed as lacking resilience. As we speak, we’re hearing about possible supply chain breakdown as a result of CO2 shortages, leaving farmers unable to slaughter their animals. Local food systems are inherently more resilient as they’re better distributed and far more adaptable. If there’s failing in one part of the system, another part of the system will spring into action. This was demonstrated during lockdown as supermarket shelves were stripped bare, and home delivery slots had a three week wait. Local food systems and businesses like mine (we run an organic veg box scheme) were very agile – no customers experienced disruption to service. In fact, we were even able to increase capacity significantly and service was directed to members of the community who were vulnerable to food insecurity. Small scale local businesses like mine and organisations like the Sustainable Food Trust are all conscientious people; when push came to shove, we weren’t thinking about exploiting this opportunity and making a quick buck. Instead, we wanted to make sure that those who needed it, got it.

What’s the ideal radius to be encompassed in a local food hub? A whole medium-sized city? Mini hubs within? How would this work in a rural setting where populations are scarcely spread?

There is no strict hard and fast answer to that question. Local food ecosystems by their very nature should be unique and meet the needs of their users. Big cities like London might have a totally different set up to a rural community in Wales. Rural areas might be more self-sufficient, whereas London might rely on produce from further afield. Big cities might have smaller ‘sub-hubs’ or they might even function without any physical or central hub at all. This is the beauty of local food ecosystems – there’s no one-size-fits-all McDonald’s-style approach. They take a unique approach to meet the needs of the geography and population they operate in.

You refer to the principles of Harmony throughout your book; how do you see Harmony linked with food systems and which principle do you believe is the most vital?

It is impossible to choose one principle of Harmony as the most important, as the concept of Harmony is reliant on every cog in the wheel or link in the chain being as important as the last, to ensure the smooth running of any system. The principles ‘unity’ and ‘wholeness’ put equal importance on everything. There isn’t one principle more important than the others, but the interconnectivity encompasses what local food ecosystems are about. By putting infrastructure in place to create connectivity between local food enterprises, it allows foodstuffs and any recyclable materials to be exchanged within the system.

How do local food ecosystems deal with waste?

The principles of Harmony and local food ecosystems are fundamental to waste-management. The principle of ‘cycles’ is key – through observing nature and mimicking its life cycles, there is no concept of waste. This natural and circular way of doing things is the antithesis of the linear and industrial way of operating. Wastage is an inherent characteristic of anything that follows a linear path.

Then the principle of ‘balance’ calculates inputs and outputs to create an optimum system where nothing is wasted. In my book, I talk about lettuces that went to waste because their destination supermarket had simply overestimated their requirements. This is the problem with the modern industrial food system – there always has to be an appearance of abundance, the shelves always have to be full. Whereas the local food ecosystem sees the food system as a whole and balances it with the needs of the users.

What are the biggest challenges to make a successful local food ecosystem?

One of the greatest challenges is buy-in. It’s tricky as we’re proposing a system that only really functions well when we’ve got a lot of buy-in. Organisations like to do their own thing, they like to remain independent. Encouraging collaboration is sometimes like pushing a very heavy rock up a very steep slope. It’s not impossible but it would help to have policy that encourages the right trading conditions for local supply chains and food ecosystems. I’m working with local councillors to make this part of the food strategy on a Cambridgeshire county-wide level.

As an entrepreneur yourself, how essential is the role of entrepreneurship in creating a strong local food ecosystem?

Entrepreneurship is absolutely essential to successful local food systems. The sustainable food movement is rooted in entrepreneurship. After all, a farm is a business. But you don’t have to be financially motivated to be an entrepreneur – you just need a will to do things differently. Most organic growers fit this description. However, it is quite a fragile industry we’re working in, and a struggle to make a living. My business is the product of 20 years living hand-to-mouth, followed by a surge in orders during the COVID-19 crisis.

I see lots of great businesses run by people who have poured their hearts and souls into their work, unfortunately closing down because they’re simply unable to make their business viable. On the other hand, I see lots of great charitable farms setting up. They have no shortage of volunteers and do really well. Whilst it’s great that so many people want to be a part of the food growing process, we don’t want a food system that is too reliant on voluntary work. Not only will it become exclusive, but it also won’t allow enough space for other entrepreneurs to successfully set up shop. The local food ecosystem is trying to put the infrastructure and trading conditions in place for entrepreneurs to start independent food businesses and be rewarded for doing so. I write in my book that, ‘The hallmark of a really good business would be one that is capable of providing value to its owners, staff, customers, suppliers, society and the environment in equitable measure’.

Do you believe the true value of a local food ecosystem goes beyond money?

I quote Oscar Wilde to people: ‘Know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. I think this encapsulates the prevailing attitude in society at the moment. I know I’m preaching to the converted at the Sustainable Food Trust, particularly with all the work done on True Cost Accounting, but the drive to ever cheaper food just means that the external costs are being absorbed by the environment and society. As a society, we have to start valuing our foods more and local food ecosystems can help us do just that.

Food is fundamental to the human experience. The food industry needs to operate under a different set of rules to any other part of the economy in order to make good food accessible for all.

Any other comments?

I’ve got a message to readers: if you want to see system change, put your money where your mouth is and buy local. As I say in my book, ‘Choosing to spend your money on locally grown food is one of the most emphatic political statements you can make.’

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news