Much has been said and written about the lessons we might learn from the long weeks spent in coronavirus lockdown. And in our own world – natural and organic – we too are learning to look at things differently, in ways that could reshape our businesses and livelihoods for years to come, says Jim Manson.

One of the most successful rapid adaptions we have seen from natural and organic businesses, is a switch to home delivery services. This has been an absolute lifeline for many organic growers and producers, who’ve seen demand from traditional outlets – restaurants, cafes, pubic kitchens and schools – disappear overnight. But it’s also been widely taken up by small organic food shops and health food stores. In turn, new partnerships are being formed between small retailers and local growers. 

Local is the operative word in these new relationships. It fits neatly alongside another idea that resonates strongly in the crisis, that of strengthening our communities. Here again we find convergent thinking from different parts of our own industry – whether it’s independent retailers, or family farms, there’s a strong sense of wanting to be a connection point within our local communities. 

The Covid-19 crisis has also highlighted the vulnerability of long supply chains, and the need to strengthen local food production. Food system resilience is now a very live issue across Europe. It lies at the heart of a plea by small Swedish food firms (many organic) to the country’s supermarket bosses to give over more shelf space to locally grown and made food. It’s why organic farmers and small retailers in Catalonia are attracting many new customers with their message that local production is a vital part of guaranteeing food security. And it’s the subject of Feeding Britain, a major new book by the food policy expert Tim Lang.  

Written in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Lang says Brexit signals both a warning for the UK’s food security in the coming years – “a food system which has an estimated three to five days of stocks cannot just walk away from the EU, which provides us with 31 per cent of our food”– and an opportunity for a “forced review” of that same system, with its “massively fragile just-in-time supply chain which could easily collapse” (an outcome that the arrival of Covid-19 makes frighteningly plausible). 

The fragility Lang alludes to stems in large part from a depleted agriculture sector that produces barely 50% of what Britons eat. Not only does this leave the country to the mercies of international markets, it leads to a dependence on production methods that are damaging to the environment and human health.

“Above all, says Lang, there must be a decisive shift from a ‘me’ food culture to a ‘we’ food culture”

As a way out of this, Lang wants to see a food resilience and sustainability act combined with new nutritional and production targets. A reformed food and farming system must also decentralise and abandon the “let Tesco sort it out” mentality (a reference to the lazy thinking that arises from the cosy relationships between powerful food industry interests and Government ministers). Above all, says Lang, there must be a decisive shift from a ‘me’ food culture to a ‘we’ food culture.

To be clear, none of this is an argument for any form of exclusivist localism. One of the tragedies of the last few months has been the rapid collapse of fair trade markets set up to support marginalised and disadvantaged producers. The natural and organic industry has long been a supporter and participator in the Fairtrade movement (and vital outlet for its products), and will, of course, continue to support socially and environmentally responsible global trade in food and ingredients. Beside which, in northern climates like Britain’s, we’re not going to be growing bananas, pineapples, coffee and cocoa any time soon. 

Main image: Wild Oats Bristol, Zero Waste Company (via Instagram), KRAV, Stirling Health Food Stores, La Vanguardia

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