1. Social
March 1, 2017

London must rethink its food sourcing – or the crisis will be bigger than courgettes

By Sophie Gibson

In recent months, we’ve seen the “courgette crisis”, quickly followed by high prices and lack of stock affecting lettuce, cod and olive oil. Some Tesco stores are now limiting the number of lettuces one person can buy – in effect, imposing a lettuce quota. Obviously Twitter went mad.

Empty shelves are opening our eyes to where food is coming from, and Brexit price hikes are adding to the jitters: a city with a population rapidly approaching 10m can’t risk going hungry. But London is hardly a beacon of food policy, and faces a number of challenges if it is to achieve sustainability.

One is food waste. Others concern questions of how food gets from source to consumer. If it’s travelling a great distance it poses three problems – cost, availability and environmental impact.

Unlike other European countries, most consumers in the UK get their food from supermarkets, and national networks of supply chains makes it harder to analyse what quantity of food grown within any given radius of London specifically. But wandering around a fruit and veg aisle and glancing at labels will soon let you know that not a lot is.

The most recent hard data available on this come from a 2008 London Assembly Report: that found that London sources almost all of its food from abroad or from other UK regions. But that same report also said that there is no reason why London cannot source at least a quarter of its food from the immediate area.

In all, according to recent statistics from the agriculture department, DEFRA, the South East of England (including London) is home to almost half (43 per cent) of England’s orchards, around a quarter of England’s glasshouses and crops are predominantly cereals. Around 8 per cent of the Greater London area itself is comprised of farmland. London is surrounded by rich agricultural resources – but there seems to be a barrier between this and the city itself.

Who’s responsible for changing this? When I spoke to the National Farmers Union (NFU), who are working on several initiatives to improve sustainability including the “fruit and veg pledge” to back British farmers, they mentioned the responsibility that city authorities have: “City councils and local authorities have a role to play under the 2012 social value act to have a handle on the food supplied within their areas.”

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And, to be fair, City Hall has a plan for how to improve sustainable food sourcing, known as the London Food Strategy. This was published in 2006 under Ken Livingstone (so: two mayors ago). According to a spokesperson a new Strategy is being written this year and is due out in December 2017. We’ll have to wait until then to see what plans will be put in place.

In the meantime, the focus for London seems to be Capital Growth, a food growing network supported by the mayor. Run by national charity Sustain and launched in 2008, it has supported the creation of 2,012 new community food growing spaces across London. During the 2014 season, the network produced 40 tonnes of produce, but it is slow progress without a wider strategy for where the rest is sourced.

Ben Pugh is founder and CEO of Farmdrop, “the ethical grocer” startup based in London. “The big challenge is how we can encourage the emergence of a nimble and sustainable food chain,” he told me. “That’s why we set up Farmdrop.”

By cutting out the midde-men Ben’s organisation provides Londoners with low cost access to high quality local food via an online grocery platform. Producers are given a share of the retail price which is roughly double – 75 per cent – what they would get from the supermarkets. As Ben says: “Our business model has zero-waste by moving the management of stock to where it can be administered best, at source.”

Farmdrop isn’t alone in this quest. Ben and his team are part of a growing number of ingenios startups in the capital making it easier for people to be conscious of where their food is from. Growing Underground produce crops in disused basement spaces (they are also a supplier to Farmdrop), while Soleshare is working hard to provide sustainably sourced fish to the city.

The NFU claims that, “Consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from”. Assuming that’s true, how can you know you’re buying British?

Looking for the red tractor symbol and a British flag is one way to do this. The tractor means that the product complies with farm assured standards, including good environmental practice and being traceable to source; the flag is self-explanatory.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association is also helping diners discern which restaurants source their food sustainably by giving them a rating. In becoming part of the Association, restaurant owners can improve access to local and seasonal food.

But with only a dated strategy on offer from City Hall, support from government is distinctly lacking. The environmental impact in particular should be considered, argues Ben from Farmdrop.

“On the whole, the way we source and deliver food in London is bad for people’s health and bad for the environment. Food related emissions are the largest single contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions in London – bigger than all modes of transport combined.” London’s food strategy is long overdue a rethink.

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