The power of public procurement can shift the whole food system © Universal Images /Getty Images
The power of public procurement can shift the whole food system © Universal Images /Getty Images

Public buying key to 'fourth agricultural revolution'

23 July 2019

Improved public procurement policies for food will need to play a key role in driving a “fourth agricultural revolution” that will vastly improve UK farming, according to a report.   

The RSA Food Farming & Countryside Commission has called on the UK government to design a 10-year transition plan for farming to become more sustainable by 2030.

The Our Future in the Land report said the next 10 years will be “critical” when it comes to taking action to improve a “failing” food system.

And public procurement has a key role to play in this improvement.

While food is often relatively cheap, the true cost is picked up by farmers struggling to make a living, low job security and wages in much of the food sector, a degraded natural environment, food waste, ill health and impoverished high streets, the report said.

Procurement can help this market “work well enough” by reshaping supply chains, the report continued.

“Use the buying power of public procurement across the whole public estate to provide the impetus needed to shift the whole food system, through buying UK produce with progressively higher standards,” it recommended.

It called for public bodies to purchase 40% of their food from their local sources by 2021 and 80% of it from local or sustainable sources within seven years.

“Unleashing the transformative power of public procurement depends on a change in culture. This starts from the top, making it a national strategic priority,” the report said.

The public sector already spends £2.4bn on catering, giving the government a direct way to drive demand and reshape supply chains in the public interest.

While Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering provide guidelines focused on healthier foods, equality and diversity, animal welfare, fish sustainability and the environment, the impact so far of these policies has been limited.

This is partly because these standards are only mandatory for central government (Whitehall, HMP and some parts of the armed forces) and set as a minimum expectation in NHS Standard Contracts for NHS hospitals.

They are also, according to the report, poorly monitored and enforced.

“Separate standards apply to state-maintained schools and newer academy schools, but require action only on healthy eating, not explicitly [on] sustainability, climate or food provenance,” it said.

However, it cited success stories, such as how Copenhagen has transformed its public procurement and local supply chains by setting targets for organic purchasing.

Three quarters (72%) of all food on Copenhagen’s public plates comes from organic producers. Denmark as a whole  has improved its food system by setting ambitious targets for organic produce.

Its drive to publicly source organic food means 57% of agricultural land in Denmark is now dedicated to organic food cultivation, compared to less than 3% in the UK.

In the UK, Bath and North East Somerset Council has applied an innovative “Dynamic Food Procurement system”, which facilitates sourcing from smaller scale and sustainable food producers that are sometimes deemed “impractical or costly by other public sector institutions”.

Procurement Across London (PAL) combines the buying power of several boroughs to achieve high food standards and saves 10-20% compared to competitors while meeting high standards.

But these initiatives were the exception rather than the norm, the report found.

The report also called for boosting farmer support networks and extending support for producer organisations.

It said the UK supply of fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses must increase and that schools and hospitals must buy more home-grown food.

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