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Meeting 4: Going Regional? Implications for A Sustainable Food System

A seminar held at Coventry University Geography Subject Group, on behalf of the Agri-Food Network[1] : 7th February, 2003

The theme of the meeting was "Going Regional? Implications for A Sustainable Food System"

Papers

  1. Justin Sacks: 'NEF's LM3 tool - Double the value of spending by strengthening linkages'
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 9kb
     
  2. Damian Maye (Department of Geography, Coventry University): 'Short food supply chains: a panacea for development in lagging regions? Evidence from a Delphi survey'
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 23kb
     
  3. Advantage West Midlands: 'Clusters'
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 38kb
     
  4. Local Food Works: 'A regional approach to supporting the local food sector'
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 80kb

Attention has recently focused on the potential for local food projects to deliver healthy, good quality foods to consumers, whilst also promoting environmental and economic sustainability. Indeed, there has been a proliferation of local initiatives and schemes seeking innovative ways of reducing food miles and shortening the distance travelled from 'field to fork.' The diversity of schemes in operation and the range of different agencies and organisations involved raises questions about appropriate spatial and institutional frameworks for the co-ordination, regulation and support of these activities. The aim of this seminar was to explore the role of the region in this context.

As in previous Agri-Food Network meetings, there were presentations from invited speakers, with some pre-circulated outlines (from Morgan, Maye and Sacks). A list of discussion questions, firstly on the 'local to regional', and secondly on the 'regional and national' levels had also been prepared. However, partly because of the number of speakers in each session (4 in the morning; 3 after lunch) and partly because of the slightly different audience mix a regional meeting had attracted, each set of presentations raised different issues that participants wanted to explore. There was thus little opportunity for more general discussion of the prepared questions.

1. The seminar began with a presentation from Daniel Matthews (Countryside Agency) and Joy Carey (Soil Association, Network Development Officer for Local Food Works in the West Midlands). They summarised the Eat the View project and Local Food Works, a new partnership between the Soil Association and Countryside Agency (http://www.localfoodworks.org/). Among discussion issues raised was the question of duplication of effort amongst the various agencies and partnerships. For example, Joy talked about the success of a range of partnerships in the South-West, particularly in dealing with issues of public procurement and support for micro businesses. This begged the question: what then is the role of Regional Food Groups? In the West Midlands, the current development trajectory is that the Regional Food Group (Heart of England Fine Foods) will be the delivery vehicle for regional food strategy. The food strategy will in turn be developed in partnership with the Regional Development Agency. The point was made that the Curry Report had, in some ways, made matters worse in that it had prompted a range of major agencies to get involved in regional food issues (e.g. DEFRA, FSA) resulting in potential confusion and duplication of effort and expense.

2. A West Midlands focus was then provided by Ian Baker, Rural Policy Manager and Karen Wright, from the Regional Supply Office at Advantage West Midlands. They provided a focussed overview of the developing regional food strategy and highlighted problems such as a lack of partnership and collaboration within the West Midlands food sector. The RDA's economic development model revolves around the notion of clusters of economic activity which can be found within the region. The RDA has identified a range of existing and emerging clusters that it wishes to nurture. However, clusters often develop 'by accident' and the extent to which an RDA can stimulate their formation and growth is constrained by a series of factors beyond the agency's control (e.g. global markets). This provoked an interesting debate about the role of RDAs in promoting regional food economies. The AWM representatives argued there were only certain factors that they can influence: for example, the supermarket hold over consumer patterns and purchasing behaviour, which would not be broken overnight, although it may be modified over time. Indeed, representatives from the Regional Food Group stressed that they do much work with supermarkets in terms of trying to broker relationships between them and regional producers; they are currently developing a 'Savour the Flavour' regional brand which will appear in supermarkets.

3. In terms of new research, AWM mentioned recent commissioning of work to assess the value and potential (variously defined) for local food initiatives (variously defined) to improve access to quality, fresh food, and to help develop rural areas. This work, to be completed within about 4 months, will be led by Liz Dowler (University of Warwick) with the Foundation for Local Food Initiatives and City University. A general point made several times during the day was the need for more research and evidence on local food systems (particularly on health benefits) to inform the work of policy makers and practitioners; also on the importance of the Agri-food network as a communication channel

4. In the afternoon session, attention spread beyond the W. Midlands region. Prof. Kevin Morgan[2] (Cardiff University) presented an insightful analysis of challenges facing attempts to promote public procurement of regional produce. He argued strongly for the 'mainstreaming' of local/regional/speciality foods, suggesting that one of the main barriers to the sourcing of such products lies in the conservative interpretation of EU regulations in the UK - an interpretation which is not shared in other EU member states, notably Italy, where far more creative and imaginative procurement policies are adopted. However, he also suggested that there still had not been enough rigorous analysis of the potential for 'mainstreaming'; many current claims about the benefits and potential of regional food systems are based on a fragile evidence base and research and development in the local food sector in no way matches that in the industrial food sector. Other key points he made were that an adequate local food infrastructure does not exist and that there is a need to re-regulate supermarkets in ways that are permissive for local foods. Picking up the debate about the role of RDAs, Kevin argued that they cannot re-configure the food system alone; there is a need for appropriate partners to work together, through, for example, the development of Local Food Action plans. In the following discussion, the point was made that it is also important to look at what is needed to develop effective regional transport systems for food. Some interesting comparisons with the French case were also made, whereby the tax structure ensures that more local taxes are retained locally, which in itself encourages local procurement and 'competitive territoriality.' Kevin reiterated that there are still many barriers to local procurement and that we need to talk about examples of 'good practice' rather than 'best practice.' In the Welsh case, the Welsh Assembly has provided a useful institutional focus for the development of agri-food policies.

5. Damian Maye, from Coventry University presented some initial results from a project looking at Supply Chains Linking Food SMEs in Europe's Lagging Rural Regions (http://suppliers.econ.upatras.gr/index.html). Echoing some of the points made by Kevin Morgan, the paper aimed to explore whether Short Food Supply Chains can provide a panacea for development in lagging regions. Based on research in West Wales and the Scottish-English borders, Damian argued that at a superficial level, the answer appears to be "yes". Results do indeed predict that developments will include continuing opportunities to shorten the food chain, and improve traceability and integration with other supply nodes and non-food sectors. However, there are important barriers to the emergence of such development pathways, including the small number and size of 'alternative' producers in both locales, with most still locked into industrial forms of production; the restrictive influence of bureaucracy; the shortfall of key intermediaries in both regions' food chains; and the lack of key physical infrastructures (e.g. roads, railway and telecommunications). In response to the paper, questions were asked about how, having identified barriers to local/regional food systems, we can overcome these barriers and broadcast lessons to producers, policy makers etc. It was also noted that we need to consider the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy which - interestingly - had not been mentioned at all during the day! Finally, the point was made that there is a tendency to treat consumers as an amorphous mass, with no responsibility for the current state of affairs.

6. Finally, on a more applied level, Justin Sacks from the New Economics Foundation introduced the new tool for Measuring Local Money Flows, giving examples of its usage in food projects vs supermarkets for generating local economic benefits. There was some discussion on details of the methodology, and general issues around its usefulness in supporting locally based activities in different sectors. A general point was again made that much of the discussion during the day had revolved around the 'production' end of regional foods and a request was made for any research relating to consumers of such products. Some work has been undertaken by F3, but is not yet available.

The day ended with a round up of current and new research projects which may be of interest to members of the network and are summarised below:

  • Coventry and Exeter Universities: Relocalisation and Alternative Food Networks: A Comparison of Two Regions - new ESRC funding (24 months, from March 2003)
  • Coventry and Warwick Universities: Alternative Food Networks: (Re) Connecting Consumers, Producers and Food? - new ESRC funding (36 months from May 1st 2003)

For details of the above, see www.coventry.ac.uk/se/research/res_act_geo.htm

  • Cardiff University: Going Local? Regional Innovation Strategy and the new Agri-food Paradigm (contact K. Morgan for info)
  • Karen Jochelson of the Kings Fund is organising a conference with Sustain and London FoodLink, on April 4th, on local food in public procurement in the London health sector. Contact her for more details on kjochelson@kingsfund.org.uk

New research publications which may be of interest:

  • The Political Quarterly - Special issue on the Politics of Food: vol 74 no 1, Jan-Mar 2003. (edited by David Barling and Tim Lang)
  • Urban Studiesvol 39, no 11, Oct 2002 - special issue on 'Food Deserts' in British Cities
  • Journal of Rural Studies, vol 19 (2003) - special issue on the 'quality turn' and alternative food practices
  • Sociologia Ruralis vol 42 (4) (2002) - special issue on alternative food networks

Bill Vorley mentioned a project called the 'Race to the Top', benchmarking supermarket performance in key sustainability and inequality indicators.

Vicki Hird (Sustain) welcomed the new research but made a plea for results to be made available as quickly as possible - ideally through interim reports.

1] The Agri-Food Network was created in 2001 as a discussion and research forum for people working in universities, NGOs, think-tanks and independent researchers
2] Anyone interested in receiving a copy of this report should contact Kevin direct
(MorganKJ@Cardiff.ac.uk)


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