Supporting Sustainability By Relocalising Food And Drink Systems

Published on 16 April 2009 in Sustainability and Communities

Farm shop in Aberdeenshire


There is a great interest in local foods, but the prevailing mode of food procurement remains the supermarket, stocked predominantly with UK and internationally sourced produce. Can the local food sector be enhanced in ways that support more sustainable rural development? Does relocalisation, by which we mean the increased local or regional sourcing of food and drink, achieve sustainability gains in the food system? Should policy be supporting relocalisation and, if so, how? Sustainability is a many facetted concept, including socio-cultural, economic, environmental components, to which some would add health. The local food sector has the potential to enhance sustainability in relation to all four facets. From a farmer perspective, does relocalisation enhance economic sustainability by increasing farmer incomes and providing local identity products for local outlets? Those interested in socio-cultural sustainability might be interested in the existence of dynamic and vital local food culture. Environmental sustainability gains of local food systems are likely to arise because of the potential for reduced food miles and the maintenance of environmentally friendly production systems. Finally, the health dimension is supported if the local food is healthier. Critics of food relocalisation make several points. These are that: - relocalised food systems may not be so environmentally beneficial as first thought, because total food miles might not decline; - a country such as Scotland depends on exports of its 'flagship' food and drink commodities such as red meat, fish and whisky and the economic prosperity of rural areas is more contingent on international export than local demand; - relocalisation in some locations might lead to a much more limited diet than most Scots are used to or desire; - some local foods are high in animal fat and may not constitute foods that nutritionists think we should be eating more of. This research was undertaken as part of an EU project ( and presents findings from around the European Union which can be used to outline some of the key elements of successful sustainable local food chain developments.

Key Points

There is no guarantee that a partially relocalised food system will deliver enhanced sustainability across its various social, economic, environmental and health dimensions.  There is no silver bullet; there can be no simple checklist of factors that will lead to sustainable relocalisation; just a set of contextual factors that shapes possibilities. The reconnection of consumers and producers in local food networks is shaped by three key dimensions of the local food network: governance, embedding and marketing.

First, the governance of the food initiative matters to its success.  There are many different forms of organisation from fully fledged co-operatives to more open groups.  Some networks rely on command and control from the powerful players, others depend on more consensual approaches.

Second, the degree of embedding of the food system often impacts on whether the local initiative succeeds.  Those involved in local food systems and networks are not simply rational economic actors.  They belong to households and firms locked into webs and networks of relationships.  The more involved the relationship between suppliers and consumers the greater the opportunities for collaborative network building.

Third, marketing is an integral part of managing a local food network.  The success of an initiative is dependent on the adaptive capacity of the system and the careful management of the marketing mix.

Three different trajectories of development were discernible across 14 case studies across 7 countries.  Sometimes the network was based on innovative supply chain developments, which were often based on new alliances among supply chain actors, often initiated by farmers.  Sometimes developments were based on product differentiation.  Processors or retailers were the most likely chain actors to adopt this perspective. The third trajectory was based around territorial embedding by which local food chains are a part of regional development thinking.  Here regional partnerships are the most likely organisational approach.

Research Undertaken

The research on which these findings are taken was part of the EU-funded SUSCHAIN Project .  The research was based on two in-depth case studies in each of the 7 countries, where extensive interviews were undertaken with key actors in the local food systems investigated.  An actor network theoretical perspective was used.  One UK case was based on public procurement by a hospital trust; the other a supermarket-based approach to procuring local and regional food.

Policy Implications

There is a strong interest in developing a distinctive Scottish food policy.  At the same time, it is clear that other areas of policy, such as that relating to climate change and sustainable development may necessitate adjustments in food systems towards enhanced sustainability.  A more sustainable food sector is not just a nice idea; it is an absolute necessity.  Policy can provide the frameworks and set the structures in place to give food supply chain actors the means to enhance the sustainability of food systems.

Not all local food initiatives work.  It is important to pick winners to get value for money in public spending. Local food networks need to engage a range of actors.  A strong marketing perspective is vitally important for local food initiatives.  Initiatives which are heavy on the transaction costs of chain management and weak on marketing do not merit support.

Policy needs to be directed at initiatives which are backed by a coherent business case, where there is strong alignment of interests amongst chain actors.  Financial and non-financial support is often needed to help these ventures take off, but some initiatives absorb excessive amounts of time and cost and deliver little.  It may also be necessary to look at whether the micro-businesses and SMEs that drive regional development are over-regulated and whether there is some room for manoeuvre in regulatory standards.

The local food sector can be a dynamic force in creating more sustainable food networks but relocalisation is only part of the picture and in remote regions there may be a need to cultivate more distant markets.  Over large parts of Scotland, relocalisation does have a role to play, but a blind commitment to it is unlikely to lead to success.  There is a need to support high-potential relocalisation initiatives but avoid the high transaction cost initiatives which need continuous subsidy.

Further details of this work can be found in Nourishing Networks: Fourteen lessons about creating sustainable food supply chains, ed Roep D and Wiskerke H, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands, 2006.


Prof Bill Slee


Sustainability and Communities

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