Opinion... System must support home produce

Continuous food supplies are cornerstones of social well-being. Even minor blips like last winter's disruption of fresh produce supplies from Iberia become "media disasters".

Our mainstream fresh-produce supply chain combines increasingly sophisticated production technologies and high-quality supermarketing. Consumers benefit from a huge range of fresh produce all year round, sourced worldwide. The downside is market distortion, with the producer disadvantaged by the retailer.

Over-dominant supermarkets have suppressed producers’ returns so farm gate prices have been static for 20 years. Producers have coped by vigorous cost reductions and only the most efficient have survived.

Consequently, only 50 per cent of food is home-grown and more than 90 per cent of all fresh produce is sold in the supermarkets. Nationally the UK is now heavily reliant on imported food.

Recognition of the risks of over-reliance on food imports changed some political attitudes, releasing modest research funding. One result is that automation will totally replace manual labour in the large-scale producers.

Consumer attitudes are also shifting. Imperial College’s David Hughes has identified that consumers buy from the supermarkets during the week but buy more expensive organic products at the weekend.

Demand for local produce from identified sources has resulted. Hughes says millennials are "more interested in plant-based foods than ever before".

Consumer demand for organically grown produce has not been satisfied by the supermarkets. We see more farmers’ markets, box schemes, small localised greengrocers and co-operative allotments.

Food assemblies are adding further diversity. Small-scale producers join localised co-operatives in which their produce is advertised and purchased online. Selections are collected from a local centre, operated by a "host" who is employed nationally.

Enthusiasm for online purchasing is combined with social interaction at the collection points. Producer business models may combine several activities such as growing fresh produce with fish farming.

Post-Brexit, Britain’s food supply system must increasingly support home and localised production that is efficient, environmentally sustainable and encourages health and well-being. Returning to our price-support system, which was replaced by the EU’s market-support method, would be a good start.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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