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Buying local food

Updated Tuesday, 1st August 2006

Can buying local food make a difference to the wider planet?

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vegetables on the market Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Think back to breakfast. Corn Flakes, milk, tea, sugar, maybe some fruit? OK, now tell me where it all came from - and I don't mean Tesco. Let me help: the corn in the Corn Flakes was most likely from a genetically modified source in the USA; the milk from somewhere in the EU; tea and sugar produced under near slave labour conditions in some remote far eastern state; and the fruit flown in from a new plantation on former rain forest land in Latin America.

Do this for your other meals, your clothes, car, furniture, and you just might start thinking again. The 'ecological footprint' of Western buying patterns is out of all proportion to our own resource base. It has been calculated that if everyone on the planet consumed as we do in the West, we'd need three Earths. London's needs can only be met by a land area 40 times its own.

And this is as true for food as for anything else in this consumption mountain. Our insatiable demand for out of season fruit and vegetables can only be met by a mind-blowing global infrastructure of growers and distributors. Heathrow is now London's market garden (ironically, just like it was when it was the village of Heath Row!). British farmers are being told by their own meat marketing body not to bother producing "commodity" meat, as they will never compete with the overseas companies shipping chicken from Thailand or pork from Brazil.

The Stranglehold of Globalisation

The global food chain which supports all this is the baby of transnational companies. They rely on opportunism and economies of scale. They need to place big orders with as few suppliers as possible; costs are forced down; and they look globally for the best deal. There is no loyalty to their host country or its people.

Trade liberalisation is forced onto developing countries by the World Bank and the IMF, and sewn up under WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules. What it means in practice is that countries have no control over their cuckoo-like transnational guests. Ownership is levered out of local hands; profits leave the host country; and environmental practices and labour conditions are locked into a downward spiral.

When you buy your next jar of coffee, this is what you buy into.


What about local food?

Agriculture in the UK has undergone a huge transition in the last half century. We have lost most of our small farmers, and with them, many of our local and regional food traditions and specialities. We have also centralised our purchasing and distribution systems, so that beef produced indoors in Dorset and pumped full of antibiotics goes to Cornwall to be butchered, comes back to a Chepstow distribution centre and returns to Dorset for sale.

But before we all get too depressed and reach for the comfort food - chocolate from West Africa produced by……you get the picture - there are some real signs of hope. A new, local food renaissance is underway.

Farmers' markets are one of the most visible signs of this renaissance, with over 300 having been established over the past three years. Of course, there's nothing new in it at all - it's simply about farmers selling their own produce directly to the people who are going to eat it. But the simplicity of the concept belies a change in thinking which is revolutionary.

Farmers selling locally are taking a crucial step to wean themselves off the system which has paid them to grow an over-abundance of food with guaranteed markets and huge subsidies. Instead these farmers are actually growing what the customer wants, relying on quality and human scale marketing, and cutting out a whole, and often global, chain of agents, packaging and distribution networks, wholesalers, and retailers. The farmer gets more money, the customer gets good, fresh food at a reasonable price, and the money stays in the local economy.

There are other initiatives too which are helping find ways to support the smaller and specialist producers, re-invigorating Britain's amazing diversity of food on offer. They are helping train farmers to adapt to new ways of running their businesses, setting up co-operative enterprises, and developing the physical infrastructure that's needed, like local abbatoirs. In parallel, consumer based projects are being developed to help those with poor access to good fresh food - and that's a lot of the population - to set up food co-ops, breakfast clubs in schools, and direct supply systems.

What can you do to get into local food

First, seek out sources of local food. This might be your local butcher or greengrocer - get into the habit of asking them where their produce comes from. It might be your farmers' market. Or get a directory of local producers from your local authority, and find out how you can get them to deliver direct to your door. Many have websites too, which allow you to order over the Internet.

Second, grow it yourself. Most back gardens can produce a surprising quantity of the freshest veg and fruit you can find. Just try sweetcorn, steamed within half an hour of picking - I promise you'll never buy it again. Or get together with neighbours and create a community-run garden.

Finally, ditch the Corn Flakes and cook some locally produced eggs from outdoor hens, reach for the black pudding, and follow it down with a kipper or two.

Some useful contacts

National Association of Farmers Markets - buy your food directly from farmers, growers or producers from your local area.

Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens - the representative body for city farms, community gardens and similar community-led organisations in the UK.

Bigbarn - local food producers.

Soil Association- the UK's leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health.

Sustain - the alliance for better food and farming.

Foundation for Local Food Initiatives (f3) a non-profit co-operative offering consultancy services to the local food sector.

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