Cheap and plentiful food is a welcome part of our more industrialised, interconnected world. But people also need healthy diets, a clean environment and jobs that pay a living wage. What can be done to make sure the way we produce and use food is sustainable?
Academics, policy-makers and civil society organisations have complementary perspectives that, when combined, can provide practical answers to this question. The 14-partner FOODLINKS project looked at new ways these sectors can work together, in ‘communities of practice’ (CoPs).
CoPs are groups that exchange knowledge to learn more about a shared interest. FOODLINKS showed that the concept works well for the promotion of sustainable food, able to blend knowledge and develop policies. Its research on virtual and face-to-face methods for sharing ideas could also help future CoPs achieve their goals more effectively.
While different structures and methods are possible in CoPs, the project found three ingredients are essential for their success: an action plan built by everyone in the group; a single, easy-to-use platform for online communications; and outside support, especially for IT.
Project coordinator Bettina Bock of Wageningen University in the Netherlands says: “We wanted to find and collaborate closely on new ideas in the field – and find a common language for all actors in the sustainable food chain.”
The project set up and monitored three CoPs, each focused on a research area linked to globalisation and urbanisation: short food chains, food provided by public authorities and policies for food in cities.
Using these groups, FOODLINKS developed information-sharing communities (now part of the FoodNET hub), advised policy-makers for several European cities, promoted successful policies, and published evidence and guidelines for future policy (on the FOODLINKS website).
“We gained insights from working together,” says Bock. “The richness of the project was in getting different themes to intersect.”
Results in practice
Through their studies of existing policies, the CoPs came to the following conclusions:
Short food chains were shown to be particularly beneficial, explains Bock, because they can be greener, make diets healthier and more seasonal, and improve producer-consumer engagement. Public food provision strategies supported better-quality food, fairer, greener products and local economies. City schemes for sustainable food promoted public health, fitness and active ageing (community vegetable growing) and SMEs.
The project’s policy recommendations could make local food strategies more responsive to the needs of communities, local businesses and the environment. For example, those behind purchasing policies for school canteens could consider the health and jobs benefits of using local ingredients, while local-producer markets could boost family farm incomes and cut food’s carbon footprint.
Although the three-year project ended in December 2013, the project partners hope to develop their research further, says Bock. They are applying for a new Horizon 2020 project to investigate the role of short supply chains in rural development and how public sector food chains can adapt tenders to source more sustainable food.
“I learnt that developing a Community of Practice, collaborating on action plans, makes something useful; it makes a difference,” says Bock – showing many hands make light work, at least when building better food policy.