Can technology and very short supply chains transform local food availability (Soil Association/OGA)

Chair:Ben Raskin (Soil Association)

A plethora of new digital tools for food producers and retailers promise much, but what is the real potential. Are they the most effective way of shortening supply chains?

Session summary

The session addressed the issue of developing short supply chains, through effective use of communication technology, in the context of a broken food system. John Cant (Marumarket) presented the results from a survey on veg box schemes, and provided inputs on how to implement online marketing and its advantages, including the possibility to directly measure feedbacks and to strengthen communication about ethical attributes and customers motivation for chosing the veg box scheme.

Food marketing has fully entered the digital era, and there is evidence of an increasing trend (+25% in 2015) of online food shopping. What place can direct selling have in this context? Carolin Goethel presented us the inspiring experience of Food Assembly UK, which, after a huge success in France, is using Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to link consumers and producers and re-create local food markets at a national level. The core of the system is an online platform working as a new market place in which producers can charge their products and members are notified weekly. Local hosts organise the offer and manage a collection point. There is plenty of opportunities in this approach, for farmers, for consumers and also for those who are involved in managing the collection points, the physical end of the system, as an alternative to a mere ‘home delivery’ of products.

When ICT is used to recreate a supply chain into a given local area, they can perfectly adapt and effectively address local challenges. That is what we learned from the presentation of Holly Tiffen, who told us the story and experience of Grown in Totnes. How to create a stable, local supply chain into an area dominated by large-scale food production not for direct consumption? The focus was not on linking farmers and consumers, as the system was not designed for this, but rather on linking farmers, local retailers and restaurants. Here emerged the potential of such local initiatives. As an example, crowdfunding campaigns could easily involve a community and be very successful to support the provision of small-scale equipment for processing. At the same time, process and product innovation is encouraged, with the diversification of crops and the use of e.g. innovative population wheats.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Consumers interested in short supply chain focus on quality more than on price, therefore information is the key asset to improve and develop.
  • Beyond mere advertising, ICTs enable producers to directly and constantly measure the feedback they receive from the audience.
  • Short supply chains can be facilitated as well as the creation of new, both virtual and physical, market and meeting places.
  • When addressed at a local level, ICT has the potential to create the condition for a circular economy.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

John Cant (Marumarket): Results from the UK Veg Box Survey and tips for improving online marketing (79kb pdf file)

John Cant, Marumarket presents the results of the first national UK Veg Box Survey and how you can use the findings to improve your online presence and digital marketing.

Key findings of survey

  • Use what customers are saying to shape your marketing message.
  • Digital Marketing and how to embrace it.
  • Working together in the age of social media.
  • What makes the perfect veg box software?

Carolin Goethel (Food Assembly): How can you sell directly in the digital age?

The Food Assembly is a network of online markets with weekly community collection points, enabling direct trade between local food producers and groups of customers. Using technology to shorten supply chains, our vision is to establish a more fair and sustainable way to produce and consume food. By cutting out middle men, we bring power back to producers who are paid a fair price and to consumers who learn where their food comes from. Following a huge success in France where the model started in 2011, The Food Assembly launched in July 2014 in the UK and other European countries. The community-led network has grown very quickly, connecting over 200 food producers with 20,000 customers across the country. The Food Assembly offers farmers a unique web tool for online selling while fostering in- person contact with customers. The ease of click-and-collect saves time, reduces food waste and constitutes a new way to reach customers. We’ll be showing how web technology is innovating the food system and look at how the Food Assembly model works for farmers.

Holly Tiffen (Transition Towns Totnes): Grown in Totnes – How local are your grains, peas and legumes?

Grown in Totnes is a project that seeks to increase the range of local food available to the Totnes area. We are very fortunate to have a vibrant High Street with many food shops that stock a vast array of locally grown and processed foods. Local shops support local businesses; local farmers, local bakers, local cleaners, local IT services, this is an example of a circular economy, where the money spent just keeps circulating locally. Food is one of the few commodities left that we can still provide for ourselves locally. Grown in Totnes attempts to set a standard for ‘local’. We aim to bring all of the stages of production, marketing and delivery to within 30 miles of the town; following the concept of local through the whole of the chain. At this workshop Holly will take you through the journey of how Grown in Totnes came in to being and brought the local community along in the process, she will describe the vision and discuss some of the pitfalls that they have encountered along the way in order to bring alive the reality of a resilient local food economy that includes plant based, protein rich foods.

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