Resilience in the UK #foodsystem – 4 key questions

Resilience is one of the buzzwords of our times. Having a resilient food system is crucial in the light of climate destabilisation, biodiversity loss, and political changes such as will be brought about by Brexit in the UK. So what exactly does it mean? That’s a question I put to Dr John Ingram, food systems programme leader at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, at a stakeholder event called “Towards more resilient UK food system outcomes” held in Edinburgh in September 2019.

Food and agriculture are proportionally four times more important to Scotland than in the UK as a whole according to Fergus Ewing the MSP Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy. The Scottish Government has just committed to introducing Good Food Nation bill in the Scottish Parliament. In the face of a more unpredictable world mostly beyond their control, James Withers chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, said they brought together all parts of the industry and government to face the complex challenges ahead.

Pete Ritchie, who farms and runs an NGO, Nourish Scotland, talked about the need for farm level resilience. This includes investment in land and soil, in farm businesses, and in short food chains so farmers could retain added value as well as citizen trust, in which food is seen as a relationship about nourishing people not a commodity. It also needed diversity, with new entrants with new ideas, using better technology but involving more cooperation to help with marketing and logistics, more research on agro-ecological approaches as well as advisers. Beyond these it also needed rural housing and transport and payment for more public goods, amongst other things.

Bob Dougherty, Prof of marketing and chair in Agri-food at the York Management School, University of York, is principal investigator on Iknow food, a large interdisciplinary research programme on food system resilience. He is also a policy fellow at the Department for Environment Food and Rural affairs, where he is involved in a new UK food security assessment. He talked about the missing middle – the small and medium enterprises who make up 97% of the food manufacturing sector in the UK. These have a wide diversity in business forms, with a growing number of social enterprises that trade with a social mission, and are crucial for a resilient food system.

Tom Curtis, of 3keel, talked of the need to focus at the landscape level, to look at the landscape enterprise network, the functions needed in the landscape, the assets there and to bring people together around those. Andrew Whitley shared the lessons he learned from setting up the Village Bakery in Melmerby and then Bread Matters and farming in the borders of Scotland as well as developing the campaign Scotland the Bread (you can take a tour of his farm here and listen to an update of what he’s doing now here)

What these and other speakers drew attention to was the need to take a systemic approach to make the complex changes needed to increase resilience, the importance of diversity, of having the range of skills needed and of working together across the interacting socio-economic and biophysical impacts. As John Ingram said, there are four key questions – resilience of what, to what, for whom and over what time period – across the range of outcomes we need from our food systems.

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About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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