Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Blogs

Creating new opportunities for small farmers through dynamic purchasing

August 10, 2020
Matt Reed, Dan Keech & Damian Maye

Dr Matt Reed is a sociologist who, before a career in researching the links between technology, farming and food, worked in the food service industry. Dr Dan Keech spent many years working in food NGOs before becoming a researcher with a particular interest in cultural change around food. Prof Damian Maye is a rural geographer with a keen interest in agri-food studies, increasingly focused on questions about meat, and he has fond memories of working at a supermarket deli counter as a student. All three are part of the Countryside and Community Research Institute at The University of Gloucestershire.

Image: Katrina_S, Kindergarten School, Pixabay, Pixabay Licence

The purchasing capacity of local government could help efforts to improve the supply of fresh, local and potentially sustainably-produced food. However, all too often these contracts are held by large corporations in the UK. Several initiatives have been thwarted by the complexity of public procurement, lack of access to logistical solutions and purchasers finding it hard to balance price against other factors. Now an alliance between local suppliers, councils and central government has begun an experiment into how public procurement could kick-start a localisation of the food supply to public kitchens.

Smaller producers have faced barriers to participating in supplying public contracts. The quantity has been one obstacle: a continuous supply is necessary to keep the young, old, ill and vulnerable fed, and that is beyond the capacity of most small or seasonal producers. Another obstacle has been that while many complex factors guide purchasing decisions, price alone is frequently used as the final arbiter by cash-strapped public sector buyers. Finally, it has been the complexity of the process: most farmers and growers are experts in horticulture or farming rather than in forming the alliances and agreements necessary to tackle public procurement contracts. The UK government has been attempting to address this situation, but it has been a slow process prioritising and enacting these initiatives.

One of the largest purchasers of food is the state, via local councils, health and care providers, schools and prisons. Localising food supply chains by making it easier for smaller producers to supply to state purchasers could result in lower environmental footprints from food, while improving local flows of money might strengthen local economies. (Note that the FCRN is currently working on a piece exploring the debates around the merits of local versus global food supply chains; see also the pieces Why the beef with UK livestock? The need to distinguish between local and global scales in discussions on food sustainability and Comparing the sustainability of local and global food products in Europe.) As a team of researchers, we are currently working on an EU project that is looking to improve the links between rural and urban areas, with a particular focus on lowering the environmental impact of food production. Working with local authority partners, we have been experimenting in new forms of governance through a 'living lab' approach. This process has led us to focus on the supply of locally produced products into public kitchens.

A diverse coalition of actors in the food supply chain sees advantages in re-localisation, including the NFU (which has stated its ambition to lower carbon emissions), the Land Workers Alliance (which champions smaller producers) and urban food schemes such as 'Sustainable Food Cities'. As the UK has withdrawn from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, there is an opportunity to re-engineer the relationships between producers, public procurement and ultimately citizens. Government policy seeks to foster competition, enhance opportunities for smaller businesses and realise greater value from public money.

An intervention by the UK government and new tech innovations are beginning to break down those barriers. Over a decade ago, a senior supermarket manager told us that they could pick up a consignment as small as a single pallet and incorporate it into their logistics systems. The software that enables this remains locked behind the fence of each supermarket’s proprietary systems and the logic of supermarket retailing. Now, tech start-ups such as fresh-range and the Open Food Network are creating systems that allow small producers to access purchasing systems from their fields via smartphone apps. These enable small producers to offer food into a system that dynamically adjusts day by day, reflecting the seasons, availability and price for purchasers. This is the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS). Some of these platforms include a delivery service that collects produce and takes it to the customer. Through algorithms that minimise unused space in the vehicle, the system also reduces occasions when vehicles travel without a full load, with a corresponding reduction of GHG emissions (figures on the extent of GHG reduction are not yet publicly available).

The UK government intervention, currently an experiment in the west of England, aims to enable local authorities and those purchasing on behalf of the state to make decisions that benefit smaller businesses and improve the efficiency of local sourcing. Two factors have driven these changes. The first was the aim of the coalition government (2010-15) to increase the number of SMEs fulfilling government contracts. A second factor is a government aim to improve the public procurement of food in terms of nutrition as well as local social and economic benefits, rather than solely on the basis of price. These initiatives follow the work of others, including the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, to improve public catering. Hence, during 2020, the Crown Commercial Service (part of the Treasury) will undertake an experiment in using dynamic procurement systems to purchase food. In tandem, a newly revised 'Balanced Scorecard for Public Procurement' aims to help people making procurement decisions balance quality, provenance, sustainability, health, nutrition, service and social value against price.

Over the past few months, we have followed the discussions about how these changes could impact suppliers and purchasers. For many small-scale producers, it will mean that they have to be able to demonstrate compliance with health and hygiene regulations to trade, maybe for the first time. Other will have to be able to verify their claims about provenance and sustainability more rigorously. Not all small producers have welcomed this increased formality, but others are enthusiastic about engaging with their neighbouring communities. For those purchasing these products, changes are also going to be needed. The dynamic aspect of the system may mean that menus have to be adjusted to accommodate different ingredients because of seasonal changes. Some extra preparation may be needed in working with fresh produce, requiring new skills in kitchens.

For some time, the procurement of food by the UK state has echoed that of retailing, favouring larger businesses over the small and simplicity of administration over a sophisticated array of impacts. The pursuit of a better functioning market, in which smaller businesses could participate more easily, has opened an opportunity for smaller producers. But to assure consumers about claims of safety, sustainability or fairness, those small producers will have to comply with assurance schemes that are familiar from the corporate landscape. This quest for a more inclusive market may yet foster a network of small farms and localised business that could become the bedrock for a more sustainable agricultural sector. This initiative has been given extra impetus during the COVID-19 pandemic, as local council leaders have seen the opportunities for “building back better” through this scheme. At the same time, many farmers have had a chance to connect with their local communities in a new way, and the DPS offers a way to continue that exchange. Discussions between farmers and councils are happening now as the infrastructure to start this is being put into place. 

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