1Transition from organised industrialism since the 1970s has led to dramatic changes in the modes of production and consumption. New flexible social and economic forms of the post-welfare state are variously defined by the role of information1, knowledge2 and risk3, creating a socio-economic environment in which information overload leads to a growing sense of uncertainty. In order to explain this societal complexity and the ‘social deepening of the logic of market relations’4, research has moved from productivist neoclassical interest in the hard economic infrastructures of markets towards the softer infrastructures of cultures and institutions. This has lead to more interdisciplinary studies informed variously by economics, social anthropology, politics, and geography5. This process of embracing a breadth of disciplinary viewpoints is particularly obvious in the context of agri-food research, a term that has come to denote "an expansion of rural sociological interest over the last twenty years beyond the farm gate to consider the place of farming in wider systems of food production, processing and supply" (Lockie and Kitto, 2000, p. 3).
2Rural sociologists and economic geographers were the first to describe an alternative food economy emerging around local production of fresh foods using traditional and artisan processing methods supplying a new category of consumer who was motivated by ethical and health concerns rather than price, "the 'alternative and emergent' food supply networks and their internal relationships...more 'non-conventional chains,' such as those associated with organics and/or radically different organisational structures, ethical trading, food co-ops and farm-assured schemes." (Marsden, 2000, p. 20). The loss of guaranteed markets under CAP reform created problems for many farmers, often managing small traditional family farms, that were unable to compete against agribusiness in the free market economy and were prompted to reconsider production and marketing strategy. One option that has grown in importance has been to disengage from national customers and to build links to retails outlets in the farm vicinity or region. Consumer empathy for farmers in the wake of costly farm livestock disease epidemics created a willing patronage for the growing number of farmers’ markets and buy local campaigns that emerged. At the same time, the purchase of local food represents a consumer response to the perceived chaos of the industrial food system, ‘(where) in order to find ways out of the food disorder, consumers seem to be pursuing two different trust strategies, organic and local food’6.
3Alternative food supply mechanisms, such as short food supply chains, have also become a significant building block of theory for new patterns of rural development, "rural enterprise agencies are beginning to pay an important role in brokering local networks in which farmers, processors can learn to cooperate... like aggregating their producer power for marketing purposes" (Morgan and Murdoch, 2000, p. 168). Operating outside the conventional food chain, short food supply chains are characterised by information embedded within the product and market outlet and this added value redresses the withdrawal of capital from farm and rural areas seen under national distribution systems7. New regionalism and innovation studies see short chain supply strategies typified by the organic sector as key to rural economic development because they embody an entrepreneurial agenda and the discourse of ‘continuous innovation, facilitation and best practice’8. Competitiveness based on localised knowledge and regional uniqueness has become the cornerstone of learning regions and natural economic zones in north Italy and Wales. But successes such as these are ‘forks of lightening… failure is frequent’9. Firms contemplating the local market must balance the market power of commodity-based producer associations with the competitive advantage of small independent firms selling into speciality markets10.
4In recent years, actor network theory has been applied to the study of the commercial and social networks that surround short food chains in an articulation of action in relation to food (Morgan and Murdoch, 2000). Actor network theory provides a flexible, context-specific paradigm able to examine complex interdependent relationships and the opportunity costs of interaction. Originally appropriated from studies of science and technology, actor network theory "may be seen as a collective attempt to dissolve the dichotomies both between macro and micro-levels of sociological analysis, and between the very ideas of the social and the natural." (Lockie and Kitto, 2000, p. 6). ANT is thus well suited to the study of hybrid concepts such as food; "the food product itself - from conception to digestion, from plough to plate etc. - is hybridized in different ways and by different actors as it (literally) passes through the supply chain." (Marsden, 2000, p. 26). Production and consumption may be viewed as a "myriad of translation strategies, intermediaries or resources, and modes of ordering that are involved in the constitution, construction and maintenance of 'patterned translations' within agri-food networks." (Lockie and Kitto, 2000, p. 16).
5The mass consumer food network has been destabilised by rising farmer dissent at contractual inequalities offered by multiple retailers and pressure created by consumer concerns over food scares. Food lobbyists are increasingly concerned about the lack of institutional transparency in agribusiness governance structures that dominate food availability. Local trade implies the need for collective action in order for producers to obtain purchasing economies of scale and maintain a stable, regular supply to customers. Furthermore, the local sector is ‘marked by wider community involvement’ and the sharing of information between producers and with consumers. Relationships in the local sector are therefore transformed through networks, "a governance mechanism which is more open and flexible than hierarchies but not as loose and impersonal as markets" (Morgan and Murdoch, 2000, p. 161), by materials, meaning and power, farmers for example, "construct 'studied trust relations' with fellow farmers" (Morgan and Murdoch, 2000, p. 168). Agri-food research has begun to understand both the modalities of these food networks and the resources, policies, and technologies available for network extension11.
6The purpose of this article is to explore the networks and discourses that surround the production and consumption of local food in the UK12.
7There is no definition of local food enshrined in legislation. The Soil Association defines a sustainable local food economy as: A system of producing, processing, and trading, primarily of organic and sustainable forms of food production, where the physical and economic activity is largely contained and controlled within the locality or region where it was produced, which delivers health, economic, environmental and social benefits to the communities in those areas. According to the Foundation for Local Food Initiatives (f3), in the broadest terms, the advantages of a local food sector are community development, access to fresh produce, and producer ownership of product / process. Thus the concept of the local food sector encompasses the three dimensions of sustainability: the environment, economy and society. The holistic nature of the concept has meant that composite measurements of development and success are required. Indicators collated by f313 provide evidence for a socio-economic developmental impact of the local food sector, such as every £10 spent in a local food business adds £25 to the local economy, or 55% of local food sales are through existing local shops and markets, for example.
8The local food sector has been driven largely by active producer marketing strategies due to poor farm economic performance, especially of lowland beef and sheep farmers, and in response to consumer demand for traceability in the wake of agri-food scares such as E. coli, BSE and foot & mouth. Other positive attributes for local sale are: producers farming organically who are likely to have an established local customer base already, and producers located within access of an urban market. Local markets have benefited mainly small-scale producers selling fresh produce (dairy, eggs, meat and vegetables) with relatively small output quantities that are easily marketed direct. There is less demand for and prevalence of cereal products. Fruit and vegetables are well suited for marketing direct to the consumer because they require no processing before sale14. However there are a number of barriers to marketing milk for local sale including the need for a chilled supply chain and costly processing and hygiene regulations.
9However, the rapid expansion of pioneer initiatives over the last ten years has begun to slow and there are significant constraints to further development of the local food sector. Constraints on the development of direct markets include irregular and inconsistent supply of produce. For many producers direct markets are near saturation, especially farm shops and farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets suffer from too low frequency for many urban one-stop shoppers, and positioning and location create barriers to establishing vibrant markets. Some box schemes have faired better at developing market share through expansion outside the strict locality, such as Riverford’s box scheme that sells principally organic produce15. A recent swell in project-based support for local food, funded principally through the Soil Association, DEFRA and the EU LEADER programme, has facilitated agricultural sales and marketing to the independent local sector (i.e. high street shops and hotels/caterers). These outlets offer greater potential for daily access to products and access for supermarket customers not prepared to frequent direct markets. However, the original Regional Development Act 1998 is weak in terms of criteria so that in some areas there is more emphasis on regional specialty or locality foods for export than local food for local consumption. Table 1 illustrates the relative importance of the emerging local food sector in relation to product availability and industry sector.
Table 1: Local food market product and sector size
Source: FLAIR, April 2002. The Local Food Sector: Its Size and Potential. Food and Local Agriculture Information Resource FLAIR
10Rapidly growing interest in sustainable food and farming has also led to pressure on public sector purchasing policy. A particular subset of local and alternative food economy theory, and organic theory advocates policy to create food links with public institutions, primarily schools and prisons. The purpose is both nutritional and educational.
11In the UK, The Local Government Act 1988 implies that locality can only be taken into consideration if procurement has economic implications, however hospitals, armed forces, prisons and some universities are exempt. But, the local authority Best Value strategy requires authorities to demonstrate overall value for money in all transactions precluding the purchase of high quality local products the prices of which cannot compete with those of mass produced foods. There are sparse examples of schools utilising local food sources. Most schools are tied into national long term contracts with suppliers and governing bodies have yet to exercise opinion in relation to catering policy. In Italy, where local school provisioning has been most successful, parent groups are active.
12In 2002, research from the Institute of Grocery Distribution’s Consumer Watch showed that consumers were interested in purchasing local foods but were unlikely to compromise on quality, appearance, cost or product availability. 30% claimed to have bought foods direct from the grower, (either from a farmers’ market, a farm shop or over the internet) but this proportion dropped to 2% that bought frequently (IGD, 2002). However, actual interest in local foods was higher (59%). Consumers were generally supportive of supermarkets offering a range of local foods and thought that this would be a good opportunity for small businesses, but only 38% said they would always or usually look for these products, a further 35% said they would look occasionally. 61% of consumers expected local foods to be more expensive.
13The Food Standards Agency focus group survey underlines that key consumer priorities are first health and safety, and second agrochemicals and animal welfare (Hedges, 2002). The majority of participants were in favour of less intensive farming but there was also interest in more locally produced food, and premiums of 10-25% were widely endorsed. The least popular strategy for the UK agri-food sector was to have more imported food. However, local was not perceived as a guarantee of quality and there was no evidence that local food is yet a major bandwagon.
14According to more recent IGD research (July 2003), almost a third of consumers, associate local food as being produced within 30 miles of their home, 20% in their county and 13% produced within 30 miles of where they buy it. Regional food is thought to come from a wider geographical area than local food and from an area with a reputation for expertise and tradition for production of that food. 37% of consumers believed that where the food is bought from is a more important indicator of local food and this proportion increased for consumers who associated local with unprocessed. 33% of consumers would expect to buy local food in a supermarket, 23% in a farmers' market, and 17% in a farm shop.
15Further information about consumer perspectives on the local food sector came from focus groups conducted in 200216, which followed a naturalistic exploration of ‘consumption motivations such as social positioning and the approval of others’ (Fisher, 1993).
16Local outlets were perceived to have better quality products than supermarkets, especially really nice vegetables at farmers’ markets and at butchers’ shops, the taste of real meat is so much more delicious than the supermarket. Participants were motivated to shop at farmers’ markets because it isn’t fair that farmers get hardly anything from supermarkets for imperfect produce but recognised their limited urban capacity to support farmers in this way, rural farmers’ markets do better because it’s a bigger community. In addition, farmers markets require time and organisation to find and visit, consumers shop in their local supermarket not miles down the road because you don’t always have the ability to go there. Reasons for not shopping at a farmers’ market included traffic, especially on a Saturday morning. The use of independent food outlets was seen, especially by the older groups, as a return to the olden days, takes you back in time to when you did your shopping in one street. The value of a personalised shopkeeper-customer relationship was appreciated but participants did not feel strongly enough to put myself out. Participants were motivated to shop at farm shops because there was a feeling that small-scale family farms are quite nice. Farmers were perceived to have suffered economic hardship. Younger participants tended to view farmers as instrumental in this situation whereas older participants looked more to agricultural policies for the reason. But farm shops are often a lot dearer than supermarkets and shopping in them was a lifestyle-related activity, which for urban consumers amounts to opportunistic buying on leisurely rural journeys.
17Attitudes to supermarkets were mixed. On one hand supermarkets were perceived to hold considerable market power because supermarkets make vast profits. On the other hand supermarkets were spoken of with some pride, good old Marks and supermarket standards were trusted, Waitrose-quality. Participants felt they had lost some control over their food supply by shopping at supermarkets, years ago you could tell the butcher to leave (meat) hanging (but it’s) out of our control now. Some participants did not trust imports (e.g. from Spain) whilst some West Indian participants trusted imported food more than British food.
18Stakeholder analysis is a trans-disciplinary method informed by actor network theory17 and a technique to identify and assess the importance of key people, groups of people or institutions to a particular activity and serves to identify areas of potential common ground and key differences and competition between stakeholders. In our analysis, the method was applied to changes in the food market through discussions with key informants in organisations that have a stake in the development of the local food market. These organisations were drawn from the organic sector, locally funded projects, and public sector and campaigning organisations. 21 interviews were conducted using a semi-structured format and were taped and transcribed, but the analysis here relates only to those stakeholders with a specified interest in the local food market.
19There is a high degree of association between stakeholder organisations. East Anglia Food Links and Common Cause are both projects within the umbrella project Food Links UK, which was set up in 2002 to work towards fairer, healthier sustainable local food systems. The Countryside Agency is a partner with the Soil Association in the Local Food Works programme that receives funding from the national lottery and SEED (Social Economic and Environmental Development, also part-funded by the lottery and a consortium of wildlife, environmental and gardening groups with the aim of protecting wildlife and the environment). As well as Local Food Works, the Countryside Agency, under the auspices of the Eat The View initiative assists several projects organised by various bodies, these include Regional Food Groups with Food From Britain, the International Institute for Environment and Development, and Initiatives for the Collaborative Marketing of Local and Regional Products. These close affiliations are illustrated for a selection of stakeholders in Annex 1. But, institutions are made up of employees, most of whom are usually consumers also. Interviews were conducted with these employees whose worldviews are coloured by organisational and institutional policy, and a personal perspective based on their unique position as a consumer. Both professional and personal opinions were discussed at interview and from the combined information a picture emerges not only of institutional policy but of human aspiration to steer a course, through their involvement in institutions towards a set of life goals. In the following section, verbatim quotes from interview are shown in italics but due to a confidentiality agreement with stakeholders, quotes are not attributed to any individual organisation.
20The aim is to rescue small and family farms from the market power of supermarkets that drop suppliers at will. The perspective is anti-corporate and believes that consumers (citizens) have no choice other than between supermarkets, which deceive consumers with cute little names and cottagey pictures so they don’t realise they’re big corporations. There is a strong belief in the need to help consumers to rediscover the value of cooking fresh food seasonally as a family activity.
21Closer physical links between producer and consumer and a customer-supplier relationship based on trust through familiarity are favoured. Examples of Community Supported Agriculture, consumer coops and markets as social institutions in the US, where the farmers’ market is a vibrant exciting venue (with) music (and) fantastic looking produce, are cited as best practices that could be adopted in the UK. There is an environmental position that holds that currently roads are used as mobile warehouses and food transport costs need to be urgently addressed. The philosophy is a vision of small-scale production, local food networks and national self-sufficiency in food and fibre from the hinterland. Consumers would become increasingly engaged in gardening activities in urban areas and community buying groups would multiply through a scenario of farmers around the edge of cities rather than the extension of box schemes over hundreds of kilometres.
22The second perspective holds that globalisation and trade liberalisation do not represent a fair trading system while the concept of local does although it is difficult to put rigid criteria around local food. Geography is one part of the meaning of local but interpreting local only as distance is unrealistic for e.g. hill farmers who rely on more distant markets. Closeness is interpreted in relationships also; small scale agriculture is dependent on co-operative marketing ventures with some external support to help local farmers put all the pieces of the jigsaw together. There are many successful cooperatives in the UK, but these tend to be based on buying or sharing machinery rather than selling and there is a tendency for coops to be short term. Historically, farmers look for high short-term prices rather than longer term market solutions. Trade over a long distant can also bring closeness through communication.
23The third perception links environmental quality and geographical location. Many farmers manage their farm in an environmentally friendly manner but do not receive a market advantage. This perspective is more concerned with the sale of product than retaining control of the food chain. Existing international and multiple retail markets are considered, and in this sense the sector merges with the long established specialty market for traditional products, whilst adding an environmental quality dimension to the niche. For those active in this market the industrialised food culture has gone too far, further in the UK than in the rest of Europe due to the dominant players in the retail sector (the British Retail Consortium) and the urban population has become completely divorced from the farm sector. Data published by the New Economics Foundation is cited to demonstrate that social issues have taken second place to economic and environmental issues, such as food miles. There is a perceived overlap, confusion even, between the sector of organic foods and the concept of local food. Interviewees suggested that the local food market would grow but will later plateau. The natural capacity of the local market is constrained by consistency and quality control for box schemes and farmers markets. The main problems for a successful public sector procurement strategy are lack of suppliers able to provide the volume required and lack of local processing facilities currently available.
24Associated with third perspective is the positioning of the multiple retail stakeholders in relation to the local market. In the supermarket worldview, local is a niche alongside organic, despite the obvious overlap between these two sectors. Organic remains a higher differentiation than local The Institute of Grocery Distribution published an article on local sourcing in 2001 but local food started in major retailers only within the last year or two and the road is long. The difficulty of subdividing organic into local and non-local organic is recognised. Local is not seen as competition for organic, rather the growth of the local food sector should increase consumer interest in provenance of products in terms of locality of production, local identity, and organic. Some retailers have entered into Government supported initiatives such as the Countryside Agency’s Eat The View landscape-oriented marketing. The aim is to move products from local sale to national recognition and distribution to retail outlets offering extensive product ranges, in the first 3-5 years sales will be local, unless a supermarket chooses to run with it, and that's unlikely.
25Table 2 illustrates three local food industry ideal types suggested by the meta-analysis of stakeholder perspectives. These are depicted in matrix format, categorised according to the key discourses circulating through organisations aligned with these perspectives. The discourses reveal a continuum of definitions of local food from a template for a regionally based lifestyle, to the growth of an international but small scale trading system operating alongside supermarkets, to the incorporation of local or specialty products into established mainstream and mass markets. From this analysis it becomes clear that the primary aims of the three perspectives are likely to have distinct impacts on food supply and consumption systems. The criteria for local are based on the extent to which local is embodied in the product, marketing, and returns. The aim of the Community ideal type is to retain the product and all returns from production, processing and retail sale in rural areas. For the Provenance type, ultimately, the product and retailing activities reach beyond the local context. The question arises therefore as to what should be included in a definition of local food. For example, do strategies to maximise profit through industrial chains restrict the extent to which the concept of local can be applied? These are decisions that need to be addressed in order to develop clear goals for future local sector development.
Table 2. Classification of local food ideal market types
26The Community market represents what is sometimes called a little England approach to food and the environment. Issues such as fossil fuels take high priority in the decision whether to transport food outside the region of production. The Trading market follows the middle way being neither anti-corporate per se nor as pro niche-marketisation as the third type. The third ideal market type, Provenance foods, largely represents mainstream industry and government policy. Economic development is a priority for this type; food products are aimed at premium markets. But specificity of the product does not immediately find valorisation through prices in global markets, ‘certification systems function as an intermediary between local and global systems, assigning a general form, meaningful for people outside the local systems’ (Fonte, 2002). Clear labels are vital, many consumers will not actively search out local products and consumers do not always find it easy to identify local products. Just over half of consumers questioned by IGD would look for a label saying local or giving the county of origin when looking for a local product.
27Ideal markets reflect a shift in emphasis regarding the role of the consumer in creating and sustaining markets in late modernity. Several consumer surveys suggest that the public feels increasingly dislocated from policy and one manifestation of this is the replacement of the term consumer with the more empowering term citizen. Citizens are perceived to have been duped by the corporate machinery into acquiescence and compliance with consumer society, ‘the consumer and the citizen are generally not the same thing and the supermarket tends to listen to the former first and the latter a long way second’ (IIED, 2002). Citizens on the other hand are active in creating the food system they want to eat from. A third term, consumer sovereignty, has been introduced to bypass the dichotomy of consumer and citizen but like consumerism, sovereignty focuses on preferences and practices and has been deemed, more liberal than consumer but still, too narrow a construct, due to emphasis on the rules and principles of individual autonomy, to allow ethical solutions to food consumption to emerge18.
28The Community market provides the essence of the direct food chain; farm sales, farmers markets, and village shops, but extends to short food chains and distribution through market town shops. As such, the local food sector can be understood as part of the ‘everyday rural practices’ of rural development19 , through which infrastructures are built, food products raise health status, traditional practices are preserved, and profit is retained in rural areas. These factors can be interpreted within a livelihoods or assets framework as: wholesome food (human capital), development of community (social capital), infrastructure (physical capital), and returns (financial capital).
29There are also examples of successful short food chains in the urban context; populations of many large towns in the UK can link into organic box schemes if they seek to do so, and there are examples of short food chains serving metropolitan areas too. Bradford and District Food Information Trust, a charity whose trading arm promotes sustainable local food and provides outlets for local farmers and producers, began an assessment of the local food economy in 2001 funded by the Farmers’ Fund with support from the multiple retailers (British Retail Consortium members).
30Where the Community market type is likely to be most applicable is in helping to achieve public sector procurement strategies. These have begun to merge through project activity and isolated examples of enterprising individual members of school catering staff. However, a second driving force that has come to the fore more recently is the health impact of local public sector purchasing20.
31From an organic perspective, the local sector provides the opportunity for the founding organisations to reintroduce social elements of the organic movement into the organic production and consumption system. The professional histories of interviewees revealed that some who are active in promoting local food schemes were previously involved with or employed by founding organisations in the organic sector and have transferred their efforts, experience, and matured understanding of business to revitalise the local economic component of the organic ethos. Whereas in the development of the organic sector, wholesome business relations did not follow from the production of wholesome food, leading to current debate on the conventionalisation of the organic sector21, projects in the local sector are foremost embedded in the principles of cooperative trading, not organic production, and the assumption that at least some producers will convert to organic production through the local experience, that wholesome food follows wholesome business relations.
32Trading is perhaps the strongest driving force for developing a mass, or large minority, local food market at the current time because it holds the potential to regulate supply volume and consistency through the coordination of a motivated producer base. Institutionally, AlimenTerra for example, has established strong bonds with other key organisations involved in food lobbying, such as SUSTAIN, itself now formally allied with academia through the Agri-Food Network.
33Circulating within the local food networks were overlapping discourses that illuminate the shades of meaning of local food. The importance that the ideal types attach to the concepts that make up the local food construct is reflected in terminology used by stakeholders. Thus, distance, demand, ecology and food quality are interpreted with different emphasis: community versus trade networks, consumer versus citizen, organic versus sustainable, and organic versus chemical free (or even just fresh). Nevertheless, common ground can be found amongst stakeholders in the determination, to foster the business and technical skills, and knowledge, needed for an artisan food sector, and to build an efficient distribution system to support commercially viable small scale food production and processing.
34The appraisal of stakeholder interviews relating to the driving forces of local food production and consumption, demonstrates that both nutrition and agricultural policies need to be taken into consideration in allocating funding to local food ventures. Modes for achieving local sector development are identified based on the discussion of ideal strategies or types, which serves to highlight the multiplicity of options for marketing local food but more importantly presents local food as an inherently lifestyle-related phenomenon. Consumers also appear to be motivated to support local markets only within lifestyle constraints. Consumer research suggests that the location of the consumer determines in part the role of local food in the diet and the frequency of purchase. Urban short food chains are likely to be appreciated but will not necessarily be utilised unless they avoid additional stress. The patronage of urban farmers’ markets has a place, but it is not yet for staple food consumption. Rural short food chains are more likely to supply staple food items than short food chains in densely urban communities. Public sector procurement strategies on the other hand, have the potential to deliver staple food items in rural and urban locales. Public sector procurement strategies to bring local foods into schools and hospitals are likely to be well received but only if a superior quality of produce is appreciable. The construction of effective rural short food chains to deliver staple items food is most likely to take place through rural development and government funded projects and producer initiatives. Speciality and premium quality foods for special eating events produced from rural areas are likely to benefit from rural development and business development or business incubation initiatives. The business incubation model is also achievable in the urban short food chain context although these ventures are more likely to develop for the purposes of public sector procurement.
35Consumers do expect to pay more for a food produced locally but this depends considerably on the individual product attributes. Local foods offer an additional attractive quality by enabling rural consumers to support the local community but ultimately local foods need to be able to compete on price and quality. The use of specific terms in labelling, such as the county name, is important for marketing and is likely to increase consumer confidence in the provenance of the food. Successful local products will be those that meet consumer quality preferences whilst adding local provenance. For the supermarkets, local remains a niche although the power of the supermarkets gives them a unique opportunity to initiate or support proposals that could increase the sale of products from local rural areas. However, there are few benchmarks for the localisation of supermarket supply. Finally, in assessing local food strategies it becomes apparent that, whilst gaining citizen rights in the act of purchase and consumption brings rewards and a sense of belonging, food citizenship also brings responsibilities that require time and energy, which urban consumers may not be prepared to invest in. Thus in delineating the contexts of local food consumption it is hoped that the article may be of some use to theorists and policy makers in a wide range of disciplines.