On May 28th I attended the ‘Could Leeds Feed Itself’ public debate, which I found very stimulating. The topics discussed were very relevant and the ideas interesting and mostly worthy of further discussion.
Many ideas proposed by the audience were based on food production and few on supply chain. There was a lot of discussion on the relevance of localising production and the benefit for the environment, community cohesion and health. The organisations (mainly community groups) already working in this sector seemed to be somewhat disconnected from one another and discussion showed that there was a lot of replication of effort with little to no integration of different activities within the same productive sector. For example, a lot of these community groups are growers but none dedicates time to find solution to create sustainable supply chains, packaging (this does not mean wrap them in plastic), distribution, waste management. Without the integration of diverse form of production the case of community/individual food producers may not be scalable and never reach the wider community, which require continuity of services.
Scalability, I think, is the main non-discussed issue of the meeting. If a project is not scalable from the form of the individual (forager) or the community (urban garden) to a production that is consistent over time and distributed efficiently, it would never have a recognisable impact in the wider community. Scalability, however, requires efficiencies that are only possible if a business case for local food production is addressed. This is, in my view, the second main non-discussed topic of the evening. Business efficiencies need to be considered if the aim of this group is to bring innovation within the food sector. Harnessing those efficiencies will help this concerned community to scale up from the unit of the interested producer to the wider community of individual interested only on consumption.
Connected to this point, it is important to seriously think about how to bring innovation in this sector. Do we need a top-down or a bottom-up approach to build a strategy for local food production? Do we need local/national administrations to tell us what the right strategy to bring about the changes required is? Or do we need to create an environment that support individuals in producing the changes we want to see? Although I would argue that both are required synergistically, the bottom-up approach is what is most readily achievable by a community of interested individuals with some support from the local and national government. A bottom-up approach will not only help integration of diverse food sectors but also provide scalability and individual/community empowerment. The conversation we had at the open debate showed that many people have great ideas but are unable/unsupported in bringing those ideas into feasible and scalable propositions. Individuals (and communities alike) need to be empowered in producing the changes necessary to bring innovation, and creating a START-UP CULTURE around the case of bringing sustainability in the food sector can do this. In the specific, a strategy that consider a bottom-up approach to this issue must consider the creation of a fund to develop a start-up incubator/accelerator programme that aims to help entrepreneurs in their business journey.
Furthermore, one more step in this programme would be to create a SOCIAL entrepreneurship culture, which promotes business efficiencies within an ethical framework that goes beyond meeting the bottom line by including social and environmental goals. A new business culture based around the concept of the triple bottom line: Profit, People, Planet is developing in certain part of the UK. In some cases, start-ups can decide to run for profits in order to provide financial sustainability in the service they provide, but re-invest these profits in order to benefit the wider community and/or to scale up their proposition. In other cases, start-ups my run purely for profit but the innovation they bring is in itself a merit (for example tackling waste disposal efficiently).
I was involved in the social entrepreneurship environment of Cambridge being an alumni of the Cambridge Judge Business School Accelerate programme and the Allia’s Social Incubator East programme, and I have myself founded a social enterprise in 2011 to tackle natural resource management issues in Cambodia. By no means this is a panacea for success but if social entrepreneurs are nurtured in developing the business skills required to succeed in this society, they will produced the changes required to innovate. I do support the case for social entrepreneurship to unlock people potential and I hope the committee of Feed Leeds will consider this as an essential element of a wider strategic approach.
Leeds-York NERC DTP PhD Candidate
School of Geography | University of Leeds | Leeds | W.Yorks | LS2 9JT.
P: 0785 84 98 641