While there is value in the global food supply chain – and we would be pretty hungry in April and May in the UK without it – there is an increasing demand for seasonal local produce. A Defra survey in 2015 showed that 77% of people think supporting British farmers is important and 60% say they try to buy British. Slightly less than half said they would pay more for British produce, and the same number check labels regularly to see where their food is coming from. But how can consumers trust that food is locally produced? Especially when supermarkets have jumped on the band wagon with their fake farm names and you’ve got nothing but trust when you see ‘local’ on the menu in restaurants and hotels.
Short of actually labelling everything with the location where it was grown or raised, it could be pretty difficult to let consumers know that their food is local. Even labelling has its pitfalls. Fruit and vegetables might be grown in one field and driven hundreds of miles to be packed into bags or processed into crisps for our convenience and then returned to a shop around the corner from where they originated. Due to the demise of small local abattoirs, livestock might be raised quite nearby, but are driven similar distances to large-scale abattoirs, only to come back to your ‘local’ supermarket. So how do we trace food and label it for consumers who are increasingly demanding food from trusted producers? Supermarkets can make this especially difficult – as Zoe Neilson discovered in her two-part article on the provenance of grocery meat, fish and fruit and veg. Moving to a local level, transparency is often a selling point and can be easier to track.
Thankfully, there are a few organisations that are working hard to help consumers discover, much more specifically, where their food comes from.
The local food map on the Big Barn website shows consumers the shops that supply local food. The community interest company aims to help reduce food miles, cut out middlemen and increase food knowledge through education and reconnecting people to local food. There’s a lot of potential here, however you still have to be a discerning customer if you want to only buy British – not every farm shop solely sells locally produced vegetables – many also import produce from abroad.
The FairChain Foundation use blockchain to provide transparency in the coffee supply chain and ensure that every farmer receives a fair price for their work. Down the line, consumers can scan a bag of coffee with an app to see where it has come from and that the farmer has been paid fairly. Fair trade is based on trust and good practice, which is unquestionably important; blockchain extends fair trade, making transactions visible at each step of the supply chain.
The Happerly website states that “Two farmers wanted to break the disconnect between producer and consumer and restore honesty and credibility to food provenance by making data in the food chain transparent.” Happerley aims to provide traceability data, using a QR code on packaging, directly to consumers via a free app. As with FairChain, Happerley uses blockchain to provide this information. The aim here is not necessarily to tell you what is local or sustainable and what is not, but to give you access to information about a product’s origins and journey to enable you to make that assessment yourself.
In April 2018, Defra announced that a new traceability system would be created and developed by industry. Through cross-sector collaboration, the Livestock Information Service has the potential to transform the livestock sector. As the data will most likely only be available to the industry, it will be up to the local farm shop or butcher to ensure that they can advertise their produce accurately. That’s where the likes of Happerley and Big Barn come in. By providing an accreditation marque, Happerley would allow customers to whip out their phone and check the supply chain of a product. Likewise, shopping at a greengrocer advertised on Big Barn, you should feel at ease questioning the staff about the provenance of the food. They should be bursting with pride to tell you where it’s from and why.
I have shamelessly focussed on local food issues in the UK, however determining food provenance is an issue in countries around the world, and some are trying to solve it in innovative ways. For example, demographic and movement information about individual animals in Denmark’s Central Husbandry Register is available to the general public on the website (so long as you can read Danish). This is a top-down approach that provides transparency in the food chain.
Consumers need to be clear about what they want to know about their food as the range of information available to the public varies widely. Local food producers, often because the scale of production is smaller and the supply chain much shorter, can provide this more directly. Being open and frank about provenance encourages the trust of consumers, who may then become loyal customers. However, full transparency through the food chain is critical and, really, customers should be able to find out as much accurate information about their food and its production as they want, whether shopping at the local farmers’ market, high street greengrocer or multi-national supermarket. This is the revolution that we need – and, hopefully, it’s not far off.
Photograph: Paul Wilkinson
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