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Sourcing food sustainably

A Note About Cities

Before diving into sustainable food sourcing it’s worth noting that many of the bodies we need to feed are based in cities and towns. Since 2006, for the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas, with over 80% of us in the UK being urbanites.

With this fact in mind, we need to question: How can food sourcing be designed into our urban spaces in a fair and equitable manner?

Although much more food can be produced in cities, a metropolis will always need to source most of its food through trading with agricultural communities around the city edges and beyond – in peri-urban and rural areas.

Sourcing Food Sustainably 1

Urban agriculture is only a small part of the equation... It would take approximately 2,000 vertical farms of 100 metres by 100 metres to feed the city of London, and that’s even if we were to stop wasting food and stopped eating animals. If you populate the green belt of the city with those vertical farms you really haven’t solved anything, because the question then is where all the nutrients to grow that food would come from.

Factors to consider

The number of actors in a supply chain is as important as the distance food travels when it comes to assessing the environmental and social impacts linked with the distribution (processing and storage) and transport costs of food.

However, the biggest environmental impact of food supply chains relates to how food is produced. Unlike industrial agriculture, agroecological farms can produce healthy food whilst restoring local biodiversity, natural resources and reducing our food system’s carbon footprint.

If we are to transition towards a zero carbon society, we need to start re-localizing our food systems whilst supporting farms that practice agroecology and organic methods (where energy-intensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are restricted).

By shortening supply chains and prioritise local we can reduce transport needs and build connections between eaters and growers, increasing our collective understanding of where food comes from and its various impacts.

Eating with the seasons can also help to reduce the environmental impact of the food we eat. If produce is ‘in season’ in the UK, it is more likely to have been grown locally.

By contrast, food that is available in our shops that is not in season must have either been grown indoors using artificial heating, or have travelled from somewhere where it is in season. Growing crops under cover is helpful to extend the season but if this involves artificial heating then any environmental benefit is lost.

Growing and sourcing more fresh organic and highly perishable produce (such as salads and fruit) in and around cities is also important, alongside supporting the livelihoods of – and campaigning for policies to enable more- small and medium scale agroecological or organic farms.

When aiming to buy or source food sustainably – whether for ourselves, a business, hospital, school or council- we need to start questioning the following:

If we start basing our sourcing decisions around the above, we can build close connections between agroecological farms and the communities they feed, cultivating soil health, clean water, fresh air and decent jobs.

Case Study: Growing Communities Food Zones

Growing Communities, based in North London, believe we can produce delicious food at 3 the same time as reducing the amount of energy, fossil fuels and resources it takes to feed us, alongside creating jobs and community in both urban and rural areas.

Their vision for a better food and farming system reads:

“It’s 2035… A network of farms in and around urban areas provides at least 60% of the food needs of those towns and cities. 20% comes from other parts of the UK and a further 20% comes from Europe and further afield”.

“At least 20% of the population are involved in farming in and around the areas in which they live and most people have a portfolio of work which includes some food-related work – paid and unpaid – that enables them to live”.

“Farming continues to be about producing food for a living but this increasingly includes different approaches such as part-time ‘patchwork’ urban farming, city people involved in running orchards and farms which supply food to their communities. All children are taught how to grow food in school.”

Growing Communities has created a Food Zones Model to help realise its vision. This model considers how much of which foods we could be sourcing from different zones, whilst also taking into account a range of other factors. Growing Communities box scheme and farmers’ market aims to source as much food as they can from as close as possible and then work outwards. This Food Zones model has emerged from the practical experience of running a successful community-led trading scheme and reflects the theories and principles developed over the last 20 years.

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