Archived site section

Please note that the content on this page has been archived and is not actively reviewed at present.

Sustain / Agri-Food Network

Meeting 1: Localism

Thames Valley University/Sustain: AgriFood Network inaugural seminar & meeting 2nd November 2001

David Barling (TVU),
Hannah Bartram (Royal Societyf or the Protection of Birds),
Terry Carroll (Newcastle),
Chalie Clutterbuck (Thames Valley),
Michael Crawford (Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, North London),
Georgina Dobson (Council for the protection fo Rural England),
Liz Dowler (Warwick),
Caroline Hill (New Economics Foundation),
Vicki Hird (Sustain)
Ian Hutchcroft (Devon County Council),
Moya Kneafsey (Coventry),
Tim Lang (Thames Valley, TVU),
Michael Heasman (Centre for Food and Health Studies),
Karen Lock (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine),
Eric Milstone (Sussex)
Self Morgan (Cardiff),
Jenny Morris (Chartered institute of Environmental Health),
Jules Pretty (Essex University),
Martin Turner (Exeter),
Bill Vorley (Internatrional Institute for Environment and Development),
Tom Wakeford (Sussex),
Sarah Watson (Foundation for local Food Initiatives),
Judith Whateley (Rural Futures),
Bryony Worthington (Wildlife and Countryside link),

The theme of this first seminar was: Localism



A wide-ranging discussion was initiated by the two papers written for the seminar. These were:

  1. Tim Lang (introducing paper by Lynn Stockley): 'Exploration of the health, environmental and social benefits (or otherwise) of re-localising the food supply'.
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 21kb
  2. Jules Pretty (Essex University): 'Some Benefits and Drawbacks of Local Food Systems'.
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 78kb


A note on problems in evidence and the policy implications

a. Introduction

The paper prepared by Lynn Stockley is doubly welcome. It is good and long overdue that we have an attempt to review the relationship between nutrition, health and local-ness.

By way of an introduction to her written paper, I will do two things: make some comments about it and the focus, and then make some suggestions about what a health analysis of localism might have to include.


b. Some thoughts sparked by Lynn Stockley's paper

The paper has pointed to an understanding that many of us suspected informally was the case, namely:

  • A low interest in localism as an issue among nutritionists and researchers on diet and health;
  • A low interest, vice versa, among localists in nutrition and health.

Lynn's paper suggests that we have a lot of work to do in this area, but it should not, I think, be taken to indicate that there is no need to do any more work. For instance, no connection is spelled out to key indicators of the poor diet-health nexus in the UK. We suffer from one of the worst records of Coronary Heart Disease and diet-related cancers in the rich world.

I think that there are some promising areas where a relationship between local-ness and nutrition/diet/health might be explored, which Lynn Stockely's paper doesn't cover, nor was asked to do so. But if there is a nutrition-local link, I suspect that it might be in areas such as the following:

The growing area of eco-nutrition.
Prof Mark Wahlquvist in Australia has been writing papers suggesting that the modern, industrial society diet does not meet the range of foods we are programmed by evolution and biology to require or benefit from.[1] We need to know if the claim many box schemes and Community Supported Agriculture schemes make, namely that they make farmers grow more diverse crops (to be available to fill the boxes for 52 weeks in the year) and that thus the recipients get a more biodiverse diet. Wahlquvist argues that we need to eat around 35 species of plant a week. Would a local food system help or hinder that process? I suspect that it might help, but only if there is consumer 'pull' as well as supplier 'push'.

Finland's experience: local restructuring and culture.
For those who don't know it, the work of Prof Pekka Pushka and colleagues in North Karelia is rightly and often cited as great evidence that poor diet-related disease can be tackled by public health intervention.[2] It is less well known that the N Karelia people encouraged their local food industry to change too. This ranged from persuading fat producers into producing less fat or different fats, to barraging the public with health education messages (only possible 25 years ago when Finland had restricted TV output and would be impossible today Pushka told me in an age of 200 satellite channels) and to encouraging people to collect, store, freeze and eat/cook local berries. This cultural dimension was essential. The berries story - which needs further exploration in my view - taps into the desire of Finns to celebrate the long summer days (and light) through collection and eating of berries.

Energy: where is the 'efficiency'?
Sustain is about to produce a report on energy use in food production (due December 2001). People of my age were hugely influenced by the work of Leach[3] in the 1970s pointing out the ludicrous use of non-renewable fossil fuels in so-called intensive agriculture. This issue has become very important today again. One of the reasons the local is back on the policy agenda is because there is more awareness of the food miles issues - trucking food up and down motorways - and the whole extension of the supply chain.[4] The retailers trumpet the brilliance of their logistics - and they are - but from an energy perspective they are both crazy and inefficient. The local is likely - but not sure - to score on this energy question.[5]


c. The relationship between policy and evidence

One of the joys of working in food policy is that I have become increasingly aware of the problematic relationship between policy, practice and evidence. Medicine now is full of talk about evidence-base. Cochrane type thinking demands analyses of proper double-blind trials.

If this was applied to food policy, there would be chaos! (One can argue that this is a fair description of what we have.) So often, policies occur:

  • Without evidence;
  • Despite evidence;
  • In the face of evidence;
  • With distorted evidence;
  • On the base of partial evidence.

The practice from all of these five policy-evidence relationships may work quite happily. The food will be produced in one way rather than another. The outcomes will celebrate this indicator of success while ignoring indicators of failure alongside. This mess may offend science but it happens to be the way of the world, or politics at least. (Before you get uppity about this scandalous state of affairs, think about the relationship between childcare theory/evidence and the myriad experiences of parenting!!).


d. What would a public health analysis of localism require?

I want to offer five thoughts:

The priority
For a proper public health analysis of local food or localism, we will need to explore subjects on which we have a good overview and specific data. I would recommend that we pursue the issue of fruit and vegetables (see my remarks in section 1). The current nostrum is the British all need to eat more fruit and vegetables to prevent the key sources of premature diet-related death and disability.[6]

What is public health?
What we mean by 'public health' when we say we want a public health analysis (or should it be audit) of food & localism should be based on and think about feeding in to the WHO European Office's new three pillar approach. This links: nutrition, food safety and sustainable food supply.

Research agenda
Research should look both at the individual level of food localism and at the population implications. If a box scheme does improve the chances of maximising the range of plants eaten, can this approach be translated for use nationally? What sort of food supply chain would be needed for that to happen? I would be interested for us to explore a range of data about food localism. This should include: nutrients, energy use, bio(diversity), satisfaction / well-being, and cost.

Food poverty
The food security implications of localism are particularly sensitive but important. The UK has a terrible record of widening gaps between rich and poor consumers.[7] How does a localist food approach address this? Does localism pander to those who can afford it? These are not unimportant points. The Policy Commission of the Future of Food and Farming is concerned to encourage efficient farming but it is nervous about the environmental question. It OUGHT to be nervous about food poverty. Far from the current system serving the poor, there is mounting evidence that the extended / attenuated food supply chain has added a new burden to the poor. They have to spend more money on transport to get to the bargains.

We must pull out the policy implication of whatever research is done. Localism or re-localisation of food supply is not just and issue for farming. It goes to the heart of government's role in setting the framework within which producers, processor, retailers and caterers operate.


3. Bill Vorley (International Institute for Environment & Development): a background paper on other Agri-Food Networks. (sse paper)


Summary of discussion around the presentations.

The themes that arose in the debate following the two paper presentations on local food discussions were:

The meaning and scope of local food were discussed; inclusion of cultural, spatial and economic perspectives within such definitions. These definitions might need to be linked to outcomes sought from local food systems. For example: will local be more sustainable? What do we mean by sustainable?

Policy realities
We need to place local food within the realities of public policy and corporate policy. These realities include:

  • the use and appropriateness of policy instruments (e.g. taxes and levies, voluntary or legal regulation, revision of subsidy such as under the CAP)
  • use appropriate policy language (e.g. better quality, standards)
  • private regulation - realities of power relations in the food supply chain

Types of research

  • Immediate: research that helps groups on the ground e.g. auditing criteria for local food projects.
  • Long term or horizon scanning: e.g. identifying roadblocks to change and enabling the movement past such
  • roadblocks. Identifying costs and defining them more fully. Drawing up new indices e.g. for nutrient content of foods.
  • Research regarding cultures and consumers; identifying consumers' motives and values.

There was a need for evidence-based research to help bring about change in the food system. Need to review and reflect on the type of food system that will evolve.


Future meetings of the Agri-Food Network

Without prejudging future meetings or being bound by commitments, we held a discussion of whether further meetings should or could be held! Everyone had enjoyed the meeting and found it stimulating. There was general agreement that what had been valuable about this meeting and would be worth developing was:

  • its multi-disciplinary range;
  • its combination of NGOs and the variety of academics;
  • time to reflect and raise questions;
  • sharing of research that we are already doing;
  • looking for rigorous evidence and gaps in evidence that may be useful in our work;
  • feeding into / support / critique of the food movement that we support;

Academics welcomed the chance and the space to share their work and hear comments. NGOs and think-tanks welcomed the chance to be able to ask awkward questions. It may also be an opportunity to influence funders.


Topics for next meeting - probably January

A number of proposals were mooted:

  • a paper on supply chain thinking
  • a paper on citizen's views of food supply
  • a paper on the health costs of current food supply

Thoughts or offers, please, to Vicki Hird, Bill Vorley and Tim Lang who will arrange the next meeting.


1] Wahlquvist M L, Specht R L (1998). 'Food variety and biodiversity: Econutrition', Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 7, 3 & 4, 314-319

2] Puska P, Tuomilehto J, Nissinen A, Vartiainen E, eds (1995). The North Karelia Project: 20 years results and experiencesHelsinki: National Public Health Institute & World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe

3] Leach G (1976). Energy and Food Production. Guildford: IPC Science & Technology Press

4] Raven H, Lang T (1995). Off our Trolleys?. London: Institute for Public Policy Research

5] See the tables in Paxton A (1994). The Food Miles Report. London: SAFE Alliance (now Sustain)

6] There are targets to reduce these in H M Government's Saving Lives White Paper. London: Dept Health

7] For an up-to-date summary of evidence, see the forthcoming Dowler E, Turner S, Dobson B (2001). Poverty Bites. London: Child Poverty Action Group; otherwise see Leather S (1996). The Making of Modern Malnutrition. London: Caroline Walker Trust

Agri-Food Network: The Agri-Food Network was launched jointly by Sustain and the Department of Health Management & Food Policy, City University in 2001 to link academics working on food and farm policy with each other and with those NGOs and think tanks which are using and commissioning research to underpin policy advocacy work.

The Green House
244-254 Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9DA

020 3559 6777

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

© Sustain 2021
Registered charity (no. 1018643)
Data privacy & cookies