How to decentralise our food system

Most of our food is sold through a handful a supermarket chains that operate the same business model, a centralised model that aggregates all products under one roof. Can decentralised aggregation shift power away from supermarkets?

Touring the country, it is remarkable to see the sheer number of smaller food enterprises that exist. Small salad growers, chutney makers, bakeries, fisheries, community vegetable growers, small scale dairy, veg box schemes, microbreweries, meat box deliveries, micro oil pressing… the list goes on. These businesses are viable. They create jobs. Many are tackling social and environmental issues through regenerative farming practice and innovative pricing that acknowledges different capacities to pay. The demand for this produce is high and the benefits far-reaching. We are really not tapping into this potential.

Instead 95% of UK food retail goes through 9 supermarket chains. Two key innovations have been responsible for this market domination – aggregation and value-capturing. Supermarkets aggregate at an incredible scale – all imaginable food products are available in one place. This scale means they can sell leading products at a loss, and other products at tiny margins, supplementing revenue by selling shelf space. It is market domination that extends to integrate vertically down the supply chain capturing all added value.

The lesson of adding value has been well learned by the wave of smaller food producers we see across the country. Most make their business work through processing and value-adding themselves, then selling directly or through short supply chains to capture more of the retail pound. However matching supermarket capacity for aggregation has been much harder to achieve.

Many groups have tried to create aggregating services. Groups like Manchester Veg People have had incredible success with the support of the Kindling Trust. Cultivate Oxford have long struggled to create a viable business in aggregation. Fife Diet, once one the largest local food project in Europe, also tried without success. Riverford has developed a very successful model to aggregate organic veg producers. Some smaller aggregators exist, including Tamar Valley Food Hubs, Dean Forest Food Hub; succeeding through the sweat of committed volunteers. There are many amazing community shops and farmers’ markets, but the country is also littered with the huge effort of less successful, but very welcome attempts.

The role of the aggregator is an important one. Almost all of us feel stretched for time, in our home lives and in our work. Knowing you can reliably find everything you need in one place makes planning your day easier. Buying a catering order from a single supplier saves time on ordering and accounting, whether you are a cafe, a hospital or a school. The role of the aggregator is fundamentally important in the current world, and yet it is fundamentally a difficult one.

But the task is not impossible. We’ve seen some success stories, but we need a whole lot more. We can be confident that we will not find another one-size-fits-all solution to combat the supermarket model. We will find hundreds of small solutions that work in diverse ways and forge little niches that become cracks in the armour. To find all of these niches we need to innovate. We need to experiment. We need tools that can support this experimentation such that we can try things out and see what flops, then scrap that, learn from it and try the next thing.

This is a fundamental design principle behind the Open Food Network. The platform does not prescribe how aggregation businesses are run. Instead, we want you to try all the business models you can think of. Does one farmer deliver produce for three farmers near her and take a bit of extra margin to compensate? Great, we can support that. Does an enterprise want to offer discounts to people on low incomes? Crack on! Do you want to make one supply list available to restaurants and another to retail customers? Sure thing! Do you want to buy a 25kg sack of flour and split it between the buying group? Simple! Do you want to arrange delivery to pick up points and offer a discount in return for the host? Let’s do it! Do you want to collaborate with another food hub two towns over? Easy peasy!  Do you want to give trusted customers the option to pay on collection but ask everyone else to pay in advance? Done! Do you want to offer a delivery service to some buyers but ask everyone else to collect? Sorted!

None of these little innovations are game changers alone. But some combination of them might just be the model that will make a successful food hub in your community. The goal is to support food enterprises to innovate and collaborate to find new ways of aggregating. A flourishing food economy needs diverse, distributed aggregation. And we need to experiment with our communities to make it happen.

One thought on “How to decentralise our food system

  1. Pingback: Open Invitation to all Food Assemblies! – Open Food Network UK

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