Localising food – lessons from ‘living labs’ during the coronavirus crisis

Covid-19 has made it clear that our contemporary food system is not working. Empty supermarket shelves will symbolise the crisis for years to come. Through the Horizon 2020-funded ROBUST[1]  project, researchers at the CCRI and Aberystwyth University have been working on solutions for a more sustainable and equitable food system. What have we learned from lockdown?

Our food system has long been insecure. In his timely book Feeding Britain[2] , Tim Lang shows how supermarkets’ just-in-time delivery systems and supply chains are always fragile. When the crisis hit, empty shelves were caused not by mass panic-buying, but by all of us buying a little extra. The fragile system quickly buckled.

Empty supermarket shelves

For three years, our research has examined how local government can make strategic changes to influence the food system. We’ve advanced ideas to:

  • Bring more smaller-scale producers into public food procurement, using council spending to support a growing local economy.
  • Adapt and shorten supply chains so that consumers can buy from local suppliers despite mobility restrictions.
  • Use data to identify and develop local market opportunities.

We work on ways to change our local food economies through ‘Living Labs’ in both Gloucestershire[3] and Mid Wales[4] . A Living Lab is a space of discussion and experimentation, facilitated and supported by researchers, in which innovative ideas are tested and explored. Just as physical scientists have a laboratory to experiment in, a Living Lab is run by social scientists to help people tackle complex problems out in the world. We build networks, hold meetings, identify what is practical and carry out new research and assess existing evidence.

We share our Living Labs with local government and civil society partners. Working together takes time, but there are practical benefits. Our Gloucestershire and Mid Wales Living Labs are separate, but we share experiences and learn together. Working across the border has also let us learn from different models of governance. That helps us reflect on how future policies can be more reciprocally supportive.  Some of this innovation is about the ‘horizontal’ – spreading the innovations more widely, and some about the ‘vertical’, getting it more firmly rooted in place.

London during lockdown

Then came lockdown. As food challenges became more urgent, our Living Labs could offer little immediate help for empty shelves. At the same time, our research into localising food has perhaps never been more relevant. What we’ve learned about supply contracts, listing websites, veg boxes, community schemes and local markets has become a wealth of evidence to draw upon. We’re now assisting a range of local and national groups to draw upon what works in the UK and abroad.

As researchers in lockdown, we’ve also learnt lessons of our own:

  • Research can be more agile – we can use ‘good enough’ data to respond quickly, focussing on practical barriers and solutions and a bit less on concepts and theories.
  • Video conferencing and succinct email does make for meaningful engagement – group discussions and formal meetings can be too slow.
  • We cannot include everybody, but we can be accountable, ethical and open in what we are doing.

Looking ahead, a fair and sustainable food system will require much more than simply re-stocked shelves. Living Labs show real potential for fostering and nurturing the evidence-based social innovations our food futures need. But, at present, our Living Labs are only funded for a few years of activity. Our next challenge is to create longer-lived spaces of experimentation – and optimal action.

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Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins
Matt Reed
Damian Maye