Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Food fit for the future

Horsemeat has entered the UK human food chain passed off as beef (see here). The chain has been shown to be very long and very complex, with dubious practice both within the UK and across the EU (more here). Parts of the food system the UK and EU are insecure.  Testing of meat for processing is inadequate. The provenance of many processed products containing ‘beef’ is now understandably doubted by shoppers. Reports are appearing about the benefits of locally sourced foods.

Trust and confidence in processed meat products from supermarkets has decreased with more people instead going to their local butcher. They can talk to them about their products. They are more likely to look over what they are buying. They can get to know and understand more about their food and where it comes from. There’s a great story to hear and pass on about those who supply all local foods: farmers who grow local apples; bakers who make local bread or meat pies. We should not underrate the power of the story of our food as part of having confidence in and enjoying what we eat.

There are many advantages in short, simple food chains, which for meat in a local butcher is much more often from farm to butcher to shopper. Contamination, deliberate or otherwise, is less likely with a shorter chain. There are animal welfare advantages in lowering the need to transport them – and diseases are less likely to spread if animals are moved around less.
More people may turn directly to suppliers of organic, seasonal, local, regional and national foods as these pride themselves in establishing and maintaining maximum traceability for their products and establishing and maintaining high and consistent quality standards (see here on green system design). Any changes in shopper habits may only last for the period that the scandal remains an issue – but this would be a mistake. There are many advantages in establishing and supporting a strong local food system.
Community and food security and stability is enhanced by strengthening the local food system. This is something my city, Bristol, has worked quite well on eg through its Food Policy Council, Food Charter and Who Feeds Bristol? report, a baseline study of the food system that feeds the city and its region (details here). The Bristol-based Soil Association has championed local food.

Bristol’s work on local food is likely to be progress well under Bristol’s first elected Mayor who is committed to:  growing a greener Bristol through encouraging local food production; championing the protection of Bristol’s Green Belt and farmland; establishing Town Teams across Bristol, modelled on the Greater Bedminster success, to revitalise high streets and independent shops.

Supporting local producers and local shops supports responsible land use. Buying local gives those with local farmland the economic support to stay in business and not sell to developers. Land that is covered in concrete and tarmac can: no longer supply local food; not absorb carbon emissions; not help to manage rainwater and reduce flood risk; not support biodiversity.

Growing, processing, selling and eating more local food strengthens the local economy. It employs quite a number of people now and could employ many more if boosted. Spending money on local products from local businesses tends to re-circulate money locally and generate more income for the local economy.

A strong local food system generally means lower air pollution because food is transported less and stored for shorter times. Generally the total ecological and carbon footprint of local foods is lower. Since locally grown food does not travel so far and is supplied in season it is therefore fresher. Local farmer's market food has often been picked within a day of purchase.  It often has longer to ripen and is handled and so damaged less because it does not come so far and through so many different hands.  Foods in season are at their peak taste, highest abundance, and lowest cost. The taste and nutritional value which reduces over time and with handling is better. Buying local means we stay in touch with the seasons.

Locally grown, locally eaten foods don’t have to stand up to long distance and frequent transportation. This means that shorter shelf life, lower yielding varieties can be experimented with by producers. This is highly unlikely to happen on any significant scale with supermarkets. More information on Bristol and its local food from and

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