Unwrapping Food: How can we finance a fairer food system?

Unwrapping Food: How can we finance a fairer food system?

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‘Our food system is broken’.

This is the alarming message here in the UK. Strict cosmetic supermarket regulations are resulting in huge amounts of food waste at source, an issue that has hit the limelight in recent years and resulted in a boom in the sales of ‘wonky vegetables’. However this is only a fraction of the problem – in some cases our farmers and producers are being paid the bare minimum by retailers and wholesalers for their produce, potentially driving them out of business. We as consumers have lost our connection with the food we purchase more than often choosing cost over quality, and households across the UK wasted a considerable figure of 7.3 million tonnes of edible food in 2015.

Last night local Bristol producers, businesses and residents joined together at Triodos Bank for an evening discussing how we can finance a fairer food system, hosted by the Food Ethics Council and Organico.

Rebecca Pritchard, Head of Business Banking at Triodos, began the session with some important facts:

  • Households today spend only 11% of their income on food, a significant decrease from the 26% seen post World War II
  • Less than 2% of us feel connected to agriculture
  • Farms are reliant on the £3.2bn of subsides paid by the UK government

Rebecca also made reference to the ‘True Cost Accounting for Food Farming and Finance’ study which reveals how food production impacts health and the environment (climate, water, soil erosion). It concluded that conventional food is too cheap, and all things considered organic food is cheaper, with Rebecca highlighting a particular example of organic apples have a particularly high health impact. The farming industry needs to move its focus away from the financial bottom line, and look towards including these hidden costs.

The evening moved onto ways of challenging these systems. Phil Eaves, Director of Supply Chain at Farmdrop introduced their business. Farmdrop is an online marketplace for producers available in London and now the Bristol and Bath area. Customers place their order through the website or app, and local producers harvest to order supplying Farmdrop customers with fresh, and sustainable food the following day. Phil explained that the current system with retailers and wholesalers has a lengthy supply chain causing a loss to the producers who only receive around 40% of the profits. Farmdrop provides a direct link between the producer and the customer, boosting those profits to 75% whilst also providing the customer with better quality and priced produce.

The final speaker for the evening was writer and philosopher Julian Baggini who raised an important discussion point – is supporting an ethical food system only a middle class indulgence? Unfortunately for most people it is not an option, and consumers with a lower income are not being considered. Whilst it’s not possible to fix the system with a small group of consumers, showing support allows for harm minimisation within the current system, and increasing buy-in creates more opportunities for political discussion and change. Julian also described ‘local food’ as a fetish, an obsession to some consumers, explaining that whilst we need to be support local producers, it is also important to continue to support globally and that transport forms only a small part of the carbon footprint of produce.

A lively Q&A session followed with many interesting points raised. The availability of land for producers to start out is limited and costly, with private investments storing money in ‘land banks’. Rebecca offered that perhaps a way forward would be for forward thinking banks like Triodos to invest in these plots to rent it out to new businesses at a cheaper cost.

Farmdrop were questioned on their food waste and carbon footprint. They replied that they have quality standards (weight, freshness, damage etc.) but not cosmetic standards. As a result food waste is limited and donated to food banks. They also use electric vehicles to deliver to customers and are keen to do more. It was argued that their model has some flaws; farmers deliver low volumes of produce compared to a typical veg box subscription and transport is increased due to the number of different producers involved. Phil acknowledged these comments describing how some of their London producers had come together as a hub outside of London. They all deliver to the hub, and one of the producers makes the trip to Farmdrop, lowing delivery costs for the producers as well as the environmental impact.

By no means is Farmdrop a solution to the problem, but they do serve a disruptor to the current system. Cost and convenience remains an overwhelming influence in consumer decisions. To make a change consumers need to feel empowered and to re-kindle their connection with food through education and support from producers.

To see further discussion from the eventing head to Twitter on #unwrappingfood.

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