TABLE blog post: Support Your Locals: on international solidarity in a resilient and sustainable urban food system

Disruptions to Dutch food supply chains were seen early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, including empty supermarket shelves, closure of restaurants and waiting lists forming for online grocery deliveries. Some cities responded with food initiatives that aimed to support local suppliers, building on existing perceptions that local food is better for health and the environment.

In this TABLE blog post published today, Anke Brons and Sigrid Wertheim-Heck explore the trade-offs between resilience and sustainability for these initiatives, and argue that supporting local food must go hand-in-hand with international solidarity and a global perspective on food systems transitions.

Read the blog post here: Support Your Locals: on international solidarity in a resilient and sustainable urban food system. The blog post is based on a Dutch essay, originally published in the Flevo Campus essay bundle ‘Veerkracht als opdracht’ (Resilience as a mission).

We welcome your comments! Leave a reply below to share your thoughts.

This is an important debate but I can’t help thinking that it is a situation created by affluence. We too had momentary food shortages and avocados and pineapples certainly disappeared but we were never really short of potatoes or carrots. My guess is that if we relied on local food I might also lose avocados and pineapples.

There were food chain surprises. Flour became a problem for home baking not because there was a food shortage but because home baking boomed and no one wanted 25kg sacks of flour. Much to one supermarkets credit flour was put in donut bags! I am surrounded by grain producers.

There were other problems for example because of particular restrictions on potato sprout suppressants potatoes were not always easy to divert from chip shops (where they are peeled) to domestic use. I have not checked but I suspect rice and pasta consumption boomed neither of which are grown in the UK.

Far more importantly climate change will hit regions very hard, sometimes but less frequently the whole world. It might be my region or yours; it is difficult to predict. There is some give in the system and in the UK around 50% of our wheat is consumed by livestock and of this half by ruminants with a very low efficiency. In the disaster situation breeding stock is slaughtered, increasing supply, and the reduction in stock results in more grain for human consumption. Diet variability changes but it may be no less healthy. I appreciate that if there is a long term problem this may not be enough.

Surely the solution is to optimise all food production and perhaps make sure we have emergency stores of say dried grain and beans for when the prairies burn. Can we really burn more energy to produce food in controlled environments?


Thanks Simon - how do you reflect on the international solidarity issue raised by the blog in the UK context? I wonder if the supply chain disruptions may have fuelled more nationalist framings of food systems problems and solutions (i.e. ‘we need to sort out supply chain issues in ‘our’ country’ vs ‘we need to think about pressing issues across the world’).

Thanks Walter for the response and interesting query. Unfortunately my reply is only based on perception so may not stand up to scrutiny. The UK is full of contradictions and division, perhaps particularly as far as agriculture is concerned. I suspect our histories have had a greater impact than is usually recognised.

Firstly, the UK has been a net importer of food for a long time supported by exports in other sectors. Our first foray into protectionism came in 1815 to protect against cheap grain imports from the US and Canada. This was dismantled when it became apparent that the price of food was politically more important than supporting production and we have remained importers since then with support in various forms periodically returning (particularly following the agricultural recession in the 1930s with the formation of monopoly marketing bodies). Ironically our self-sufficiency reached a 100 year peak when we first joined the EU because i) technology increased production more quickly than population growth ii) EU prices were high as a result of tariffs. export subsidy and intervention buying.

The impact of support has not been as simple as you might expect. There has been stress in the UK agricultural industry and our solution has been to increase farm size combined with the marketing boards in the 1930s. While (I would argue) as a result of better soil types, higher population density and a more entrepreneurial outlook (reinforced by demonstrable success) the Netherlands has intensified production on smaller units and improved on farm entrepreneurship. Ironically the disadvantage of scale forced collaboration on Netherlands farmers. I think I am correct in saying that the Netherlands had the only agricultural sector that was not reliant on subsidy. It is certainly the second biggest exporter of food and drink in the world by value. I worked for a period in the area adjacent to London and found that on the poorer soils most farming families took over farms in the 1930s from poorer areas of the UK while those on the better soils survived

The consequence for the UK is that

  1. Development through scale did not encourage technical innovation at farm level (it did require other skills in terms of capital accumulation and innovation in support industries was high - for example the UK was at one point a leader in GM technology)
  2. Protection through marketing boards also secured a livelihood without entrepreneurial input at farm LEVEL. (The EU maintained something similar)
  3. Large scale meant that collaboration was not historically necessary (but is now) (and meant subsidy per farm even recently was very high - politically the UK fought against descriminating in favour of small farms))
  4. The contribution of farming to the economy in the UK is small
  5. We have had no history of self sufficiency. While food was short and there was rationing in WW2, we did not have the starvation that much of Europe experienced.
  6. Nationally agricultural protection from imports is easy to sacrifice in exchange for access for financial services and historically industria;l access

Food nationalism here started with various environmental NGOs. This was for a number of reasons but in part due to the threat of (perceived) lower standards. There was a belief that EU standards were universally better and we would lose this protection. EU standards are high in some areas such as antibiotic use (thank you Sweden) and animal welfare (although I would add that as a non-farming nation the UK would (and has on occasion) adopted higher animal welfare standards than the EU). However, some of our pesticide MRLs are higher (ie. a lower standard) than the Codex or permitted in the USA and in at least some sectors EU greenhouse gas levels are higher than for other producers.

NGO nationalism was quickly followed by support from the farming industry.

I am not sure that most of the UK population felt particularly strongly about it although I suspect there was more support amongst (what we refer to) as the chattering classes.

I should perhaps research properly and write a paper!



Thank you for your comprehensive reply and reflections, Simon.

I know very little about the history of agricultural subsidies in the Netherlands and in general, but I believe subsidies have been important (and still are) in how the Dutch agricultural sector developed post WWII. Sicco Mansholt has played an important role here. If you’re interested in the history of rural farming regions the Netherlands, I can recommend the work of Geert Mak. Some of his work has been translated in English:

Sorry - reflections rather than rigour on this occasion! (I apologise).

A subject for you is bias in popular research - this seems to be on the rise on all sides of the industry although again this might be perception.

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[From a UK perspective]

The article shines an important spotlight on the complexities and ambiguities around “local food”. I feel like this is often unquestioningly accepted as A Good Thing without interrogating why, and suspect that if asked to rationalise this a lot of people would point to the reduction in transport-related GHG emissions. And yet, in some cases, the (usually relatively small, as a proportion of food impacts across the whole supply chain) transport GHGs can be easily cancelled out by reductions associated with growing crops in regions with optimum conditions (e.g. field conditions in Spain as opposed to heated greenhouses in the UK). I’m speaking (er, writing) as someone who is very much in favour of more (but certainly not exclusively) local food, but I think the benefits lie elsewhere. Tim Lang writes compellingly about Britain’s ongoing colonial attitude towards food – expecting other countries to feed us. Given that climate change is generally predicted to have less detrimental impacts on UK food production than on that of many other countries, including some on which we currently depend for imports, should we not be looking to increase UK food production (especially with regard to horticulture, which we’re rubbish at)? The failure to do so implies either extreme short-sightedness or an assumption that “we” (the UK) will continue to expect food from overseas countries even as they increasingly struggle to feed themselves – there are issues of justice here. I suppose this would be my initial take on the statement “the desire for more local food must therefore go hand in hand with international solidarity” – but now I’m also thinking more about potential unintended negative consequences for countries that might see a fall in demand for exports if the UK were to become more self-sufficient. There are a whole bunch of ways you can look at this. Like everything, it’s complicated, and the pros and cons (of local food) will inevitably vary a lot between different contexts, products, etc.

The points about social inclusivity are important too. All very well for those lucky enough to be able to afford local veg boxes, farm shop products etc. to pat themselves on the back – but for the money- and/or time-poor supermarkets are often the only feasible option. There was a “solidarity veg box” scheme in my local community (begun during the pandemic) aiming to supply local veg free (I think it was free, maybe just at a heavy discount) to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. The scheme here was very small in scale, but a quick google for “solidarity veg boxes” suggests there have been similar schemes elsewhere. It’d be great to see this become more widespread… I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, for the same reasons as I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of foodbanks (issues of dignity & dependence; “sticking plaster” approach rather than tackling underlying issues) but if for the time being we are going to have people dependent on foodbanks (which sadly seems to be the case) then widening their access to more healthy & sustainable food would be an improvement…


The main suppliers to the world are those countries that don’t have a food shortage such as US, Brazil, Russia and Europe (thank you Netherlands and France). The objective for every farmers is, and largely should be, to produce more and thus replace imports. But don’t forget that (say) a Kenyan cut flower producer exporting to Europe can buy more food than if the land were used for food production and that alternative sources of income are much scarcer than in Europe. It is also worth two minutes understanding that it is far more complex than even that suggests. Supply to a UK supermarket ensures a lot higher local (Kenyan) standard in terms of health, welfare and pollution control than sale through a flower market.

If you want to add more complexity the DRC has a similar food production potential to Brazil but is an importer at least in part because of the inability to move plant nutrients into the country.

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Do you have any references where I can read further about this, @simonward?

This is based on the first principles of understanding agronomic and logistic constraints. It is an envelope calculation, although one that a practitioner can do: consider, area, rainfall, water availability (the Congo river), soil type (very low nutrients) and look at production in practice and in those few places where a surplus is created. pH is a particularly difficult problem to address - and compare and contrast with Brazil to complete the school exam question. You might also add environmental damage to the mix and make a decision on what is acceptable.

While an economic cliche, the mineral base (coltan, cobalt, uranium et al) raises strength of currency making it harder to compete with agricultural imports. As far as logistics are concerned while the Congo river is largely navigable it is not navigable from the sea inland to even Kinshasa requiring transhipment. There are a number of control points that can extract value from the product on route.

The situation is not helped by the damage by the Belgians that is even greater than caused by other very damaging colonial powers. Arguably one of the largest genocides in history, for example.

There may be land rights issues too. I know in some areas of the Cameroon for example that nomadic cattle production plays havoc with crop production (also inland based on a slash and burn rotation).

There are sometimes cultural issues. For example, wheat is often valued above cassava in urban centres. Security comes from the ability to be able to buy food (from wherever available) rather than produce it. Back to the local food argument.