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SHORT FOOD SUPPLY CHAINS - Relocalising production to empower actors and make territories resilient

Edited on

24 September 2021
Read time: 10 minutes

Short Food Supply Chains (SFSC) renew the traditional format of direct sales in order to position themselves as an alternative to the long chains that characterise the global food system, a model that has been clearly identified as unsustainable. The EU's own "Farm to Fork" strategy underlines the value of this necessary reconnection between producers and consumers, between rural and urban areas. All of this in a context where forms of irresponsible consumerism coexist - suffice it to mention the high percentage of losses and waste or the problems of famine and disease associated with it - alongside prosumerism initiatives aimed at breaking down these distances and generating alternative, sustainable, locally-based models. While recognising positive impacts in social terms, there are still aspects to be explored in the economic and environmental spheres, derived from the expansion of the Short Food Supply model. Something similar occurs from the perspective of improving the health and nutrition of the entire population, as well as democratisation and justice related to food governance. It is in this context that regional and local authorities, together with producers and consumers, can enhance strategic initiatives that definitely support a sustainable food system, as promoted by the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, recently signed by the FOOD CORRIDORS network.

“Did you say cucumbers?”

“Yeah, they’re cucumbers alright.”

“You just told me they are unidentifiable.”

“The worksheet didn’t work, but I can tell a cucumber when I see one, Ildi.”

When a cucumber is not a cucumber: An EU tale of customs and classification

(Journeys, how travelling fruit, ideas and buildings rearrange our environment. Actar, 2010)

 

SHORT CHAINS, LONG CHAINS

Long chains dominate the global food market. In parallel, short chains, thanks to traditional and innovative formulas, are present through numerous initiatives in many niche markets.

Short Food Chains (SFSC) are increasingly expanding in recent decades, driven by producers eager to improve their market position, consumers concerned about finding nearby, healthy and fairly priced food, as well as innovative policies aimed at making the regional and local food system more resilient and sustainable.

Much of the contemporary SFSC movement, especially in the form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), emerged in Japan and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Alongside the widely spread CSA groups and box schemes, Farmer Markets in their different versions are the most frequently repeated model of the wide variety of instruments created around the broad world of SFSCs. In addition, among others, direct sales on farms, producer shops, vending machines, roadside sales, initiatives promoted collectively by consumers such as social gardens or consumer cooperatives, KM0 restaurants, public procurement or food hubs are some of these mechanisms subject to an accelerated process of innovation stimulated by the digital impulse.

Many of these digital tools, such as eatlocal, localfoodloop, oddbox, farmgenerations, crowdfarming, among many others, aim to facilitate short production and consumption chains as well as to reduce food waste or promote local production. Some open-source platforms such as Open Food Network add a democratizing and collaborative component to these objectives.

On the other hand, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of the global food system while at the same time fostering this rapprochement between consumers and producers, improving trust between them and facilitating the operational framework (transport, logistics organisation, prices, electronic payment, synergies and collaboration between different parts of the value chain, etc.).

For all these reasons, SFSCs are proving to be crucial in promoting integrated food development strategies in our municipalities, cities and regions.

WHAT ARE SHORT FOOD CHAINS?

Definition

The conceptual development and policy experimentation of Short Chains or Short Circuits in the EU has progressed throughout the 20th century from traditional expressions to certainly renewed or completely innovative ones. In essence, the SFSC concept combines the idea of direct sales with local production and spatial boundaries. SFSCs are thus based on complementary aspects of social, spatial and organisational proximity. The European Commission (2011, 2013) defines, in the framework of European rural development regulations, SFSCs as "a supply chain involving a limited number of economic operators, committed to cooperation, local economic development, and close geographical and social relations between producers, processors and consumers".

A redefinition of the aforementioned concept could qualify in a variable way the role of intermediation, depending on its necessity, as well as the time factor understood as another key element of the necessary proximity when connecting producers and consumers (SMARTCHAIN, 2021). Another crucial aspect to be taken into account concerns how to ensure transparency and, where appropriate, certification of SFSCs.

 

Expansion

SFSCs are evolving differently in the European Union (Chiffoleau & Dourian, 2020). Thus, in the Mediterranean area, open-air markets have combined direct sales by producers with retailers who generally market both short and long-chain products. The presence of producers in covered markets has been reduced due to the crisis of these facilities or their conversion into gastronomic spaces linked to gourmet products, restaurants and other types of specialised shops. In this sense, some initiatives call for a relaunch of markets as public places and community services promoting circular economy formulas (Cooperativecity, 2019). In the Mediterranean area we also find successful examples of SFSCs, in this case in Italy, capable of integrating different typologies such as food markets, farmers shops, Km0 restaurants, etc. An outstanding case is the Campagna Amica proposal recently described by the FOOD CORRIDORS network.

In Anglo-Saxon countries, farmers' markets have been enjoying a novel format of open-air sales since the 1970s, with the successful participation of producers and government support in the case of the United States through the USDA Farmers Market.

In Eastern Europe, local sourcing, in different formats, still maintains an important presence, combining self-consumption and social gardens. Around it, some survive and others flourish, expressions of both indoor and outdoor markets, along with embryonic CSA and Km0 sourcing initiatives.

In the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, an effervescent gastronomic sector bases its proposals on proximity production, fostering virtuous circles of collaboration. This can be seen in LAG TARTU, the Estonian partner of the FOOD CORRIDORS project. This exchange is evident in the many relationships between the most innovative restaurants in the city of Tartu and the rural productions around Tartu County. Conversely, urban residents enjoy the more local productions through an extensive network of festivals throughout the summer. LAG TARTU is developing a small-scale initiative, supported by URBACT, to introduce sustainable practices into these festivals, an experience that will undoubtedly contribute to the greening of the Tartu European Capital 2024 programme. 

IMPACTS AND SUSTAINABILITY OF SFSC'S

It is often claimed that SFSCs are more sustainable than long chains. Is this claim true? To be true, "a sustainable food supply chain should manage economics, social, environmental impacts for the delivery of products and services, securing long term value for all involved stakeholders" (Sisco et al, 2010).

While the classical analysis of the Food System had focused on productivity and wealth generation, it has progressively given way to an approach based on multiple socio-economic as well as environmental criteria. In this sense, SFSCs have been approached as a value web (Block, Thompson et al., 2008) and specifically from a multi-dimensional perspective (Chiffoleau and Dourian, 2020), highlighting the following aspects:

- Economics. According to the results of different surveys carried out in France (2009-14) and in a group of 7 European countries by the STRENGHT2FOOD project (2019-2020), SFSCs increase the income and workload of producers, generate employment and contribute to the local economy. In addition, many of these producers practice organic farming, mix different short chains and engage in collaborative strategies with other producers. Greater local impact can be achieved when initiatives connected to the principles of the circular and collaborative economy are implemented and new actors and sectors are involved.

- Social. SFSCs strengthen social relations, stimulate social innovation and collective action, value women's work, although in some cases it is claimed that they can be inaccessible to the poorest classes. SFSCs experiences such as the one led by the association SUBBETICA ECOLOGICA in Spain, aligned with the Economy of the Common Good, have among their objectives to facilitate access to fresh, local and organic food for all consumers. To this end, it combines a transparent and democratic pricing system, an efficient management model and the commitment of its members, who voluntarily contribute their time to the organisation. Similarly, comparative studies between food prices from short (markets) and long (supermarkets) chains have shown how the prices of the former, even when they offer organic products, can be very competitive with respect to the latter (Sacco dos Anjos, 2020). Moreover, experiences such as that of the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (GAS) in Italy underline the power of these alternative agri-food networks, which have come to counteract the multiple deficiencies generated by the global food system. 

Assessing the social innovation of SFSCs is a recommendation aimed at measuring how an actor or organisation perceives its various dimensions (economic, environmental, socio-cultural, governance and influence). The SMARTCHAIN project has created a practical tool for this purpose called SIAT (Social Innovation Assessment Template).

- Environment. The higher or lower GHG emission is relative, remaining linked to the existing logistic organisation. A critical point is linked to transport emissions by all actors in the chain at different stages. All logistical and operational improvements based on better logistical coordination and efficient distribution should be carefully considered in order to reduce environmental impacts.

However, there is a very important aspect to observe in short chains when they positively exploit their efficiency. This allows producers to plan their harvests, avoiding the frequent and heavy losses that characterise long chains in any of their stages (field, processing, distribution and consumption), with all the negative impacts that this entails in terms of natural resource exploitation, transport costs and emissions, generation of surpluses and waste, etc.

On the other hand, SFSCs maintain agrobiodiversity and favour positive agro-environmental practices, given that many of them are associated with organic, agro-ecological or regenerative agriculture and livestock production.

- Health and nutrition. SFSCs promote healthier and more nutritious diets by providing fresh, seasonal and in many cases organic food. So-called "sustainable diets" are often linked to such strategies and organisation of agri-food markets. At the same time, they constitute an invaluable educational and cultural tool that is so necessary to accompany changes in the production model, involving academics, institutions and professionals in the field of public health, educators and schools, parents' groups, consumers and others. Reinforcing the synergies between the promotion of healthy diets from cities and the development of short chains is essential to ensure the success of both initiatives and not to depend on the supply of long chains, something that has been confirmed by experiences such as that led by the Swedish city of Södertälje through the Diet for a Green Planet initiative. 

- Governance. The global food crisis is manifested through multiple evidence such as the ecological pressure on resources and their degradation, the nutritional problems that affect more than a quarter of the planet's population due to hunger or overnutrition, and the growing impossibility of accessing healthy food.  All this generates a food security problem to which public policies must respond. The mainstream is not responding effectively to this global challenge. SFSCs precisely balance power relations in the value chain, empowering producers and consumers in decision-making and benefit-sharing.

At the same time, cities have begun to lead strategic proposals aimed at relocalising food production and consumption as a way to address this crisis around a central element for the survival of an increasingly urbanised population. Here it is worth reflecting on what alternatives in terms of governance are being tested. In this sense, these urban strategies have understood that "local" solutions must extend beyond the boundaries of the municipality to a regional level. The governance of such alternative models revolves around a set of interactions between institutions, civil society and groups of producers and businesses in the territorial food chain based on vertical, horizontal and territorial integration at multiple levels. The full design and operational proposal of these strategies needs such coherent and strong formulas to ensure the resources, commitments and time necessary for a successful implementation in the medium and long term.

HOW TO PROMOTE SFSCs

Several barriers hinder the further and sustainable development of SFSCs. Among others:

> Producer-related:

Often their supply is small and based on perishable products.  They have limited infrastructure and equipment for storage, processing and distribution. The workforce is small, generally family-based. They suffer from high logistical and market access costs as they do not have economies of scale. They do not have an easy connection and relationship with consumers as they do not have adequate time and resources. Fragile articulation and little collaboration with other members of the value chain, which leads to poor negotiating capacity. Difficulty in competing with standard market prices. Lack of knowledge and information.

This accumulation of weaknesses causes a permanent organisational challenge with corresponding negative side effects such as maladaptation, extra time or planning difficulties.

> Policy-related:

Absence of specific support policies such as recognition, economic and fiscal incentives, promotion, etc. Complex and non-harmonised regulations, with high levels of bureaucracy, excessive sanitary requirements, or complex and costly certification measures.

Through municipal markets, municipalities have an effective and critical support tool to promote short channels and thus local economic, environmental, and nutritional policies. In the framework of the FOOD CORRIDORS network, the Greek town of Larissa (145,000 inhabitants) has been promoting 17 weekly open-air markets since 1972, located in different parts of the town, with between 60 and 350 stalls, where vendors from the prefecture receive between 200 and 5,000 customers. Satisfaction is general and the great challenge is to limit the inconvenience of the population living in the area where the markets are located. In Alba Iulia (75,000 inhabitants, Romania), a recently renovated permanent municipal market occupies 4500 m2, with most of the food, agricultural and livestock products from Alba County. In addition, the municipality organises a Temporary Farmer Market combined with other private markets. Between the municipal commitment and the general satisfaction of producers, however, there is a certain stagnation, exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic and the perception of consumers that prices are higher. The case of Figueira da Foz in Portugal is a good example of a combination of a classic market with a superb specialisation in fish and vegetables, with the opening of other types of shops and service premises, which extends opening hours and diversifies the public, including a very positive and beneficial attention from tourists with the consequent impact on social networks.

> Consumer-related:

It is common to find a mature public among the profile of regular consumers of SFSCs, which invites reflection on the need to attract a younger clientele. The offer of the SFSCs needs to adapt to the expectations and purchasing conditions of the new consumers in terms of opening hours, prices, formats, diet and gastronomic culture, etc.

Two basic mechanisms, social innovation through a collaborative alliance of solutions between producers and consumers, and political facilitation through strategies led by public administrations integrated at different levels, can contribute to the effective promotion of SFSCs.

1. Productive innovation

Producers can try to improve their competitiveness in many ways, such as increasing sales, implementing logistical improvements, creating new sales chains, increasing the added value of their products or extending their shelf life.

Sometimes ephemeral and informal solutions, such as the one proposed by Comunità Frizzante, can provide the creativity and risk necessary to provoke innovative forms capable of experimenting with practical applicability, technological and financial feasibility, social and operational suitability valid for different forms of SFSC. Alongside these collective brands or labels, many other alternatives can be tested: cooperative supermarkets and other collective forms of outlets, marketing tools, online marketplace, open farm tours, quality assurance and certification models. 

2. Consumer innovation

There are many innovative initiatives that consumers can encourage in favour of the relationship model that distinguishes SFSCs. From culture and education; gastronomy and healthy diets; volunteering; sociability and the development of local events; collaboration with schools and school canteens; good practices in social communication, supporting innovative ideas through participatory crowfunding....

In practice, the renowned associative formula used by the network AMAP (Associations pour le maintien d'une agriculture paysanne) in France and GASAP (Groupe d'achats solidaires de l'agriculture paysanne) in Belgium, is a successful case of consumer-driven actions to build mutually beneficial relationships with local producers.

3. Political facilitation

The promotion of SFSCs by policy-makers can be made effective through multiple chains:

- Support programmes and development of the legislative framework. Stimulation of territorial strategies such as the Projets Alimentaires Territoriaux in France by the central government and the regions, or the case of the Biodistricts in Italy and some other countries such as Portugal or Spain.

- Boosting organic products. Thus, the French Government has established that by 2022 50% of products for catering establishments must be from organic production, quality label and SFSC. In Hungary, the national Govern under the frame of rural development strategy 2020 is promoting the development of a quality assurance system to positively connect local production and gastronomy.

- Promotion and Support. In Madrid (Spain), the municipality through the MARES project (UIA Program) promoted different SFSC and KM0 initiatives. In Wallonie (Belgium), the regional government has promoted since 2011 a well populated network of food hubs (Halls relais agricoles) as collection, transformation and distribution centres aimed at facilitating collaboration and scaling up by producers and consumers involved in SFSC. In Paris, the municipality and various public bodies have strongly supported the launch in 2017 and subsequent operations of La Louve, the first cooperative supermarket to open in France in the wake of the pioneering Park Slope Food Coop, opened in New York in 1973. Many others have been opened in recent years in cities such as Toulouse, Lille, Grenoble and Montpellier.

- The development of local brands, fostered in cooperation between the producers themselves and local administrations, appears to be an appropriate strategy to encourage the leap in scale and to generate identity and prestige linked to the origin.

- The EU, national and regional regulations support the establishment and promotion of SFSC and local markets through CAP but also some other urban integrated development and cooperation programs.

- EU legislation also helps through specific policies to support organic productions, regulation and promotion of quality and safety food and agricultural products.

 

FAVOURING CONNECTIONS TO GAIN SUSTAINABILITY

Some studies (Brunori et al, 2016) have shown that global and local chains are not exclusive or opposed and therefore can give rise to a wide spectrum of hybrid forms between the two models, depending on spatial configuration, product identity, physical distance, farm size, governance and technological resources used.

It is very important to recognise these combinations when defining food strategies or action plans for cities or regions, being realistic in the design and objectives to be set. The concept of foodshed can contribute to a feasible diagnosis and plan. Such an approach has been taken for the French city of Avignon. The regional dimension, thus understood, is key in terms of scale of production and consumption, management, regulatory framework, monitoring of impacts and integrated element in regional policies.

Moreover, producers often participate simultaneously in multiple market chains (short and long chains), showing a "hybrid" performance.

Through innovative ways of adding value, producers can reinforce the value of their product by creating new robust business models. They generally need to gain economies of scale by promoting horizontal (between producers) and vertical (with other links in the value chain (sub-suppliers, retailers, consumers) cooperative solutions. As a result, new production, transformation and sales spaces can be created (workshops, hubs, shops, markets...), often also opening up to a wider territorial framework (province, department, region).

On the other hand, consumers show favourable attitudes towards SFSC products and their quality. However, as we have mentioned, these products are not always within their reach, either because of their scarcity, limited access, high price, lack of knowledge or the absence of specific chains. The proliferation of points of sale (often ephemeral, such as the successful REKO-rings promoted in Finland and other Nordic countries) is one of the ways experimented with to address these disconnections. These are proposals based on collaboration between producers to broaden the range of products, cooperation with purchasing groups and small local businesses, educational and social communication actions to inform about the origin, quality and price of the products, etc.

THE PATHWAY TO EMBED SFSC INTO INTEGRATED LOCAL ACTION PLANS

Thanks to the framework provided by EU policies, notably the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), the LEADER Programme and the knowledge generated by different research (SKIN, STRENGTH2FOOD, SMARTCHAIN...) and cooperation (INTERREG, URBACT) initiatives and projects, we have the necessary context and resources to describe some lines of the pathway to follow for those cities and regions wishing to address the complex issue of food from an integrated and territorial perspective.

In summary, we can mention some axes to consider in this basic exercise towards the transition to locally based sustainable food models.  

- Mapping the local food web. It is necessary to carry out a good initial mapping of the local food system in order to have an objective view of the starting situation that can conveniently guide the goals and actions to be achieved. A mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches is appropriate to carry out this analysis as found in the seminal work carried out by Joy Carey, in 2011, "Who feeds Bristol? Towards a resilient food plan".

The aim is to have the necessary baseline study on which to define the plan. A similar approach was taken by the FOOD CORRIDORS network partner, LAG Tartu. A statistical analysis of the local food system, combined with a qualitative diagnosis involving several dozen local stakeholders, has been used to draw up the broad lines of the integrated territorial food strategy. Some possible focuses of the county´s food strategy have been concluded while the participants in the mapping of the current situation will be involved in the strategy process.

 - Promotion and revitalisation of the SFSCs through education, culture, collaboration, information and promotion campaigns, provision of spaces and infrastructures (sales, storage, distribution, training, digitalisation, etc.).

- Appropriate regulations for the creation of adapted hygienic-sanitary conditions, simplification of permits, identification of production at origin, artisanal and other local labels, economic support, tax benefits, aid... The involvement of civil servants and politicians of the municipality is particularly effective in this respect.

- Public procurement and other municipal initiatives such as the one led by Mouans-Sartoux, which has set up an organic supply model for school canteens by setting up a municipal farm. 

- Articulation through capacity building, coordination, synergies and aggregation between policies and actors, integration of new local intermediaries, technical support, visibility...

- Governance in the form of the provision of adequate mechanisms for democratic participation, empowerment, integration in transnational cooperation networks...).

This article has been written in parallel to the process of designing Integrated Action Plans by the partner cities of the FOOD CORRIDORS network.  It is intended to provide information to inspire their proposals for action. A more practical version of these contents will be tested in transnational workshops of the network. Further articles will be published in the coming months in line with the FOOD CORRIDORS theme described in the Baseline Study of the Project.

* Antonio Zafra is the Lead Expert of the FOOD CORRIDORS network