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A wake-up call for food system resilience: Ten years on from the ‘Who Feeds Bristol?’ Report

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Joy Carey, a director of Bristol Green Capital Partnership and Bristol Food Network, addresses what a resilient food system could look like for Bristol once we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. It is ten years since her report ‘Who Feeds Bristol?: Towards a resilient food plan’ and this post identifies five core principles to start building a better and more resilient food system as soon as we can.

Exactly ten years ago, I began my research into Who Feeds Bristol?. Its purpose was to better understand the strengths and vulnerabilities in Bristol’s food supply, to identify the priorities for future resilience, and to inform an action plan on how the city could shape its food system.

At the time I had to be assertive about referring to the ‘food system’ and its ‘vulnerability’. I never imagined that within a decade both concepts would be at the fore of daily experience.

Suddenly, the word ‘vulnerable’ is everywhere: the most vulnerable groups are being hit hardest by COVID-19; endless discussion about how vulnerable the global food supply system is to supply chain disruptions and resulting food shortages; cities all around the world scrambling to organise emergency food supply to vulnerable groups through not-for-profit and community-organised operations that are dependent on donated surplus food and therefore also vulnerable. Businesses are vulnerable to going under. Individuals not classified as vulnerable nevertheless feel their own health vulnerability each time they go out food shopping.

This tiny virus has struck at the core of humanity, exposing our collective flawed behaviours and habits. It has highlighted just how interconnected we all are; how we are not simply individuals but all part of an intricate and delicate ecosystem. When it comes to food, we are similarly all part of and reliant on a highly complex system – dependent on the health of the soil, and all the people and processes that get the food onto our plates – for our own nutrition, health and survival.

Key food system vulnerabilities are being starkly exposed in this pandemic. The UK produces only 61% of all the food it consumes (NFU, 2019). Hidden in that statistic, the UK imports some 60% of the vegetables we eat, and up to 90% of the fruit.

Farmers rely on invisible but highly skilled migrant seasonal workers to plant and to harvest, or to work in the abattoirs. The ‘just in time’ delivery systems of our UK centralised supermarket supply chain aims to keep food storage costs to a minimum, by only buying in a limited volume at any given time (about three days’ worth). This approach has led to bare shelves and slow restocking, with people faced with ‘lockdown’ suddenly all buying more food than usual. Added to this, the global food system is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions; a third of the global population cannot afford to buy enough food; while another third have food-related health problems. “Food is the biggest driver of NHS spending as a result of obesity, diabetes and heart disease” (Lang, 2020).

Resilience is about having the capacity to deal with and recover from unexpected shocks. So how could we use this crisis as an opportunity to address vulnerabilities and make big changes for a better future?

Well, first and foremost, it’s absolutely critical to understand more about how the whole system works, before we can identify what changes will have most impact. The Who Feeds Bristol? research took this approach, looking into types of businesses and operations, from food production, processing, distribution, to retail, consumption and waste. It also looked at resilience in terms of community-related food activity, and at potential climate change-related impacts. In each of these areas there are new strengths to build on and continued vulnerabilities to address.

Put simply, I suggest that for Bristol, there are five core principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system, to better see us through crises such as the one we’re now living through. They are not new to those involved in the food movement, but the pressing need for them has become glaringly obvious to many more people in just the last four weeks.

  • Build more regional-supply networks. Bristol should buy more food produced in a climate and nature-friendly way from nearby regions (West of England being a good start). This means land needs to be allocated for food production and skilled food producers are required. If more of this was in place we would be less reliant on other countries – in particular for seasonal fruit and vegetables.
  • Increase our cooking skills. We all need to be capable of cooking a meal from scratch with simple, fresh, affordable ingredients. Having the confidence to do this is about our personal self-reliance. It’s much less stressful when we know how to adapt meals if there are shortages of certain ingredients. Less pre-prepared food means less wasted packaging and usually money saved too.
  • Improve our collective food awareness. We must find ways to help everyone in Bristol understand where our food comes from, recognise the part we play in the local food community, and realise our potential in contributing to the resilience of that community. Increasing understanding could shift our attitudes and therefore our habits. We can have a significant collective impact by taking positive action together in large numbers, each person playing a part.
  • Develop more closed-loop or circular systems. Ultimately this is about conserving resources, and money – designing out unnecessary pollution and waste and treating anything that remains as a resource, not waste. The impacts of this are countless: more free water for our gardens from rainwater harvesting; provision of compost and fertilisers derived from food by-products to urban farmers that in turn encourages the city to collect green and food waste; healthier and more nutritious food produced in natural systems that regenerate the environment; the Bristol Pound helping money to keep circulating in the local economy rather than be lost to external shareholders.
  • Safeguard food retail diversity. As we are seeing, there is an inherent risk in relying only on supermarkets. We need a wider range of options for where we can all buy nutritious food, including independent businesses, market traders, farm shops, home deliveries direct from farmers. Numerous smaller scale food producers need alternatives to supermarkets in order to get their products to us and thrive as businesses. Diversity brings mutual benefits.

The Bristol Good Food Plan (2013) set out a framework for action and we need to mobilise efforts in all these areas. The collective work of Bristol’s lively food movement over the last ten years has put us in a strong position to enable the city’s food system to recover, but it will require all of us to start taking a lot more care around our food habits.  As a city we need to engage with others in the West of England region and beyond, taking a strong collaborative approach to creating positive changes to food supply. The time is NOW to begin a transition to new ways of doing things that will both support a recovery and also deliver systemic improvements for all – that includes the frontline food workers, from the farmers to the waste collectors.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be sharing more on these critical routes to creating a truly resilient food system. In the meantime, every one of us can play our part in Bristol’s stronger food community – visit Bristol Food Network’s Good Food Response pages for resources on the city’s response to the crisis, and take part in the #BristolFoodKind campaign from home.

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