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Why local foods systems are an opportunity for industry

By Jess Halliday , 07-Feb-2011
Last updated the 07-Feb-2011 at 13:23 GMT

The food industry should not rage against the idea of professionalised local food systems, nor unleash its lobbying force to uproot them before their green shoots can reach maturity. Rather, it should explore ways to benefit from local foods and, in turn, foster their development.

These days we tend to pigeon-hole people by their eating habits. Is so-and-so a home cook, or do they live off ready meals? Do they potter down to the farmers’ market or Sundays, or are they on first name terms with the servers in McDonalds?

My friends and colleagues inhabit both camps, but there’s almost always some cross-over: many a ready meal aficionados goes weak at the knees with one bite of a ripe local tomato on an August afternoon.

Yet according to an opinion from Europe’s Committee of the Regions on local food systems, in Europe the emphasis is heavily skewed towards large-scale, industrialised food production. Around 80 per cent of world food production is sold locally, but in Europe that figure is just 20 per cent.

It’s time to redress the balance, according to Lenie Dwarshuis-van de Beek, a Dutch regional councillor and the opinion’s rapporteur. That means professionalising local food systems.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t that mean seizing back a slice of consumer pie from big food players? People won’t by local tomatoes and imported ones, they’ll by one or the other. And if farmers have more bargaining power in the food chain, that means loosening the grip of the retailers.

We could be heading for a lobbying storm…

Not necessarily. The intention is not to pitch local foods in competition with industrial agriculture, according to Mrs Dwarshuis, but to make local foods more available to local consumers, and make it easier for them to chose them.

Food systems are not discrete, you see. They are intricate, organic structures that shift and overlap and feed off each other. The industrial and the local way of eating do not need to be at loggerheads. They can exist side by side in symbiosis.

Side-by-side on the shelves

First of all, the opinion does not limit the sale of locally produced food to their traditional stomping grounds of farmers markets and road-side stalls. Rather, it suggests that local retailers should stock more foods grown within, say 30 or 50 km – not just the independents, but neighbourhood branches of major chains too.

Tesco, Carrefour, and friends have been dreaming up a stream of new store formats in recent years – but I, for one, don’t see a huge difference in what’s on the shelf in my nearest Carrefour Market, the Carrefour Contact in the next town, or the several Casino-owned Huit à Huits in the city.

Stocking local produce, supplied directly by farmers or cooperatives, alongside goods shipped in from the central buying units, would help embed retail stores in their communities, give to each a unique identity, and keep money in the local economy.

From small beginnings, a mighty food brand grew

The global food industry has a hunger for good ideas from the outside. Think Ben and Jerry’s. Some of the most successful brands started out as kitchen table outfits, reliant on friends and community to spread the word.

Little by little they attract a following, and enough revenue to expand into the mainstream. If they are snapped up by a big player, the founders might switch their kitchen table for a boardroom table.

Coordinated local food systems can act as incubators for the best kitchen-table ideas. The opinion envisages that professionalised local food system will help more products, over time, gain protected status – and with it the global renown that comes with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).

Grows just around the corner

It’s no secret that big industrial outfits prefer to locate their facilities and factories as close as they can to their raw material source. Not having to ship wheat, corn or beans long distances before processing saves considerable energy and costs.

While industrial agriculture deals in industrial varieties, small farmers can experiment with crops that are all but forgotten. The apples of our grandmothers’ day are a far cry from the standard, waxy fruits sold in supermarkets today; and as anyone who has been confronted with an unfamiliar vegetable and wondered what on earth it is, and how to prepare it will attest, they can also be a source of great new ideas.

Keeping traditional varieties alive not only keeps a population connected to their food traditions. They may be adopted by local manufacturers too, for use in foods prepared and sold in the vicinity – and beyond.

There’s no guarantee that Mrs Dwarshuis’ vision of professionalised local food systems will become a reality. It was requested by Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş as part of his consultation on the future of the CAP, but quite how much is taken on board remains to be seen.

But the political will for a rebalancing of local and industrial food seems to be there, and it might – just might – provide be the essential ingredient to ensure that farmers, consumers, local communities and the food industry can all harvest the fruits of local food systems.

Jess Halliday is senior editor of FoodNavigator.com. She has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States for 12 years and recently gained a MSc in Food Policy with distinction at City University London. Jess lives in a small village famous for figs in southern France.

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