FIRST Brexit, then the pandemic and now food distribution challenges – the UK (and the wider world) have seen extraordinary demands on food supply chains over the last couple of years.

The question is – how do we build resilient systems that will stand the stresses and tests of time? The answer could lie closer than you think.

Local suppliers and producers will play a key role in the food supply chain’s recovery and growth. There are new opportunities for local suppliers as businesses and consumers turn to their communities to supply what those overseas no longer can.

By turning to local providers, we can lower our dependency on imported food products, rely on the high animal welfare and environmental standards that farmers work to in the UK, and lessen any sense of ‘food insecurity’.

There are, of course, obstacles to relying on local produce, a major one being lack of consumer awareness of the advantages of ‘buying local’. Agricultural organisations have made great strides in educating and informing the public in recent years but there is still an underlying assumption that buying local is expensive and inaccessible, when this is simply not the case.

Local suppliers that provide a direct sales platform from producer to consumer, for example farm shops, saw a boom in activity last year. Indeed, they had a huge part to play in ensuring that consumers were able to source essential food products in the early stages of the Covid pandemic when many larger retailers were suffering from empty shelves.

That, coupled with new services like click & collect and delivery, ensured farm shops and local suppliers were attractive alternatives to supermarkets.

While farm shops can react nimbly to these challenges because of their size, this size can also be a drawback. Many smaller businesses have neither the budget nor the expertise to market to a larger audience online, which can present a barrier to reaching new customers.

This increase in awareness is key if farm shop and other direct-to-consumer retailers are to thrive. With concerns surrounding overseas food standards becoming more apparent, people are increasingly interested in the provenance of their shopping and supermarkets can’t compete with the farm-to-fork journey that farm shops offer.

Recently the impact of HGV driver shortages was felt across the UK – having a huge impact on rural communities who often don’t have easy alternatives. Buying local eases the strain on the logistics of transporting produce, while allowing for packaging-free shopping and slashing food miles – both of which offer a hugely positive environmental impact that is vital in light of the current climate change debate.

Unlike large retailers which often drive farm-gate produce prices down, eroding producers’ potential for profit on products like fresh milk, farm shops and local suppliers offer a fair price for farmers that also doesn’t impact on consumer wallets. Supporting these local suppliers will create a food sector that is driven by fairness, stability, and increased self-sufficiency which in turn will help drive national food security.

Bill Gray, Chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS)