Farming News - Report reveals benefits of local food networks

Report reveals benefits of local food networks

11 Jun 2012
Frontdesk / Machinery

A report by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, released today, has provided a damning indictment of government food policy and the supermarket model, revealing the role these have played in undermining the UK’s local food networks and jeopardising the vibrancy of rural regions.


The new national report echoes the findings of European Union studies into food webs, which have shown local food networks support more jobs and reduce the environmental impact of the food sector. Nevertheless, the CPRE study revealed, “despite their critical importance to the health of our high streets, local economies and much loved landscapes, local food networks are under-recognised and poorly supported.”


It is the culmination of a five year research project ‘Mapping Local Food Webs,’ which examined 19 locations across England and identified over 2,500 local food businesses, including over 800 outlets and 1,700 producers. Researchers estimated that, in England alone, local food outlets serve 16.3 million customers a week and 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 attributable directly to local food sales.


The report, From field to fork: The value of England’s local food webs, states that such local networks, in addition to providing much-needed sources of income to people in rural regions, support diversity, distinctiveness and innovation in the food and farming sectors, broaden choice for shoppers, promote seasonality, reduce food miles and shape the character of towns and countryside. The researchers found that money spent within local food networks is recirculated in the local economy for longer, meaning the positive effect on communities is amplified.   


However, the report suggests that the rising number of supermarkets has encroached on food retailers in marketplaces and town centres, which has affected local food networks; visits to supermarket chains accounted for 77 per cent of all main shopping trips in the locations studied by CPRE.


As supermarket chains have expanded their share of the market, their stores have grown in size and moved to the edge of towns. 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. Over the same period, local speciality stores such as butchers and greengrocers have been in freefall.

Negative impacts of supermarket model


CPRE found town centre vacancy rates now average 14 per cent and can be as high as 30 per cent, which in turn has affected employment; in 1998 the National Retail Planning Forum examined the effects on employment following the opening of 93 edge-of-town supermarkets and found a net average loss of 276 jobs in each area. It is estimated that pound for pound, spending in independent food stores supports three times as many jobs as in supermarket chains.


Earlier in the year, food policy expert Tim Lang criticised the government’s laissez fair attitude to food, stating “We need a food policy; you can’t just sit back and leave it to Tesco et al. The retailers and the food supply chain that they are gatekeepers for are locked into a totally unsustainable vision for food. We have to think long-term; what would a decarbonised, water reduced, socially just food system look like?”


Since then, government watchdog the Environmental Audit Committee has criticised the government’s lack of action on creating a sustainable food policy and called for a more joined up approach from Westminster, which looks at food, healthcare, education and the environment with more cohesion.


Reviewing the CPRE findings, the charity’s senior food campaigner Graeme Willis said, “In setting out to map local food webs we hoped to measure the fantastic contributions these networks make. We achieved just that, finding great examples of local food webs helping to buck national trends of high street decline. But we have also found that the rise of out-of-town supermarkets and insufficient leadership from Government over many years have left many local food webs under siege. Action must be taken to support them, and revitalise our high streets and local economies.”


He continued, “Our research shows that the presence of supermarkets is not an insurmountable obstacle to vibrant local food networks – but their number, scale and location is critical. Moderately sized supermarkets, well- located and well-connected with town centres, can draw shoppers and support a centre’s overall vibrancy and attractiveness. However, if local food networks are to thrive, they need sustained support from individuals, the community, business and policy-makers locally and nationally.”


The organisation has called for more government action to support local food webs, including a revaluation of competition policy and increased financial support for local food ‘entrepreneurs’ to support retail diversity, and increased consideration for sustainable food procurement.


CPRE also called on Local authorities and other public bodies to form partnerships to develop food strategies and action plans and for community groups to become more engaged in promoting local food. The organisation also wants more commitment to local food from supermarkets, which it said would help support local economies and reduce the businesses’ environmental impact.


A Defra spokesperson claimed the government is making moves towards supporting more sustainable food webs. The spokesperson said, “Tackling the challenges of increasing food production at less cost to the environment is at the heart of the work we’re doing at Defra.


“We spend £400m a year on agriculture and food research, we’re close to publishing the ambitious Green Food Project to make the whole food chain as sustainable as possible, and we’re also pushing hard for food security to be high on the agenda at Rio +20 this month.”


Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticised this week for failing to attend the Rio+20 Summit next week. Joan Walley MP, chair of the environmental audit committee, said the Prime Minister’s decision sent the message that the British government, despite its claims to be the ‘greenest ever, does not value sustainability.  


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.