By Professor Mike Goodman, Professor of Environment and Development/Human Geography, University of Reading.

Professor Goodman appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today on Monday (8 May), to discuss the growth of Alternative Food Networks. Here he explains more about how they are evolving and why they face a cloudy future.

Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) in the UK—what we might think of as a loose confederation of actors working for a more ecologically, socially and economically friendly food system—are coming of age.

No longer are shoppers only confronted by wilted, dirty organic lettuce picked by ‘back to the landers’ wanting to live alternative lifestyles off the grid. AFNs are now not just at the forefront of quality food revolution for the ‘worried well’ and that of the technological revolution about how we grow and eat food, but, more problematically, are also on the frontlines of feeding the so-called ‘JAMs’ (just-about-making it) and economically marginal populations who are not getting enough to eat.

As it stands now, there are four broad trends in AFNs:

  1. Continuing growth of the AFN market. Organic sales reached £2 billion last year, which positions the UK as the fourth largest market for organic foods after the USA, France and Germany.
  2. Growth of alternative methods of growing food, which are both hi- and low-tech. On the hi-tech front we have a growing interest in producing food more sustainably in cities through vertical and underground farming. This uses hydroponic methods of growing foods in vertical shelves, under artificial light and without soil. On the more low-tech front, community gardens are popping up in cities all over the UK. In Reading, Food4Families gets families to grow food in both schools and community gardens to promote community cohesion, healthy eating and lifestyles as well as teach gardening skills.
  3. Development of what we might think of as alternative economic and social relationships amongst eaters, farmers and food. #OurField is a novel kind of ‘collaborative’ Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): Consumers put money up front in the form of harvest shares, they then talk to grain farmers to decide what to grow and where to sell the grains, and they then get to share in both the harvest and its economic gains.
  4. Growing bifurcation of AFNs. The rapid growth of AFNs is designed to feed those at the bottom of the economic ladder. More than a million people went to foodbanks last year and new programmes have popped up to get ‘waste food’ from high street food retailers and supermarkets to foodbanks, shelters and low income communities. Innovation is also happening in hunger-related AFNs: Open and publicly accessible refrigerators are popping up in more deprived, urban neighbourhoods where people can put their un-used or waste foods for others to take for their own consumption.

Why is this happening in AFNs? Clearly we are in a period of expanded access to these goods: Supermarkets like the ethical halo of selling organic and fair trade, budget retailers are featuring more organic, fair trade and local and regional quality foods, and farmers are turning to organic and local foods to maintain their livelihoods. Consumers now not only want to know more about where their food is coming from and what’s in it, but are constantly presented with food images and stories in newspapers and TV given the media profile of celebrity chefs and food personalities.

Technology also figures here by not just reducing the cost of production of say hydroponically, organically grown salad greens but also in the way AFNs are marketed, shared and accessed on the internet: Small farmers have much better access to consumers through the internet and numerous apps such as the food waste app Olio now connect consumers to food that might otherwise be binned.

The future of AFNs, especially with Brexit on the horizon, is cloudy and worthy of much greater attention. In the short term, food overall might become more expensive, and organic and fair trade foods will most likely not be immune to these price rises. On the other hand, Brexit might provide the opportunity for the further development of AFN markets within the UK if they can compete on price or we are able to develop new markets.

Much bigger questions remain though. For example, how might AFNs be at an even more progressive forefront of re-designing whole food systems for not only healthy food but social, ecological and economic justice that includes farmers and consumers but also the rest of society, animals and ecologies that hold the food systems together? Either way, we need much greater social and economic investment in new, broader and higher-impact AFNs that might disrupt the current, conventional food system and spearhead our transition to a low carbon and economically just food economy.