An EU-funded Smartchain project has spent the last three years examining how collaborative Short Food Supply Chains (SFSC) have the potential to create a shift in the way food is grown, distributed and consumed, responding to the needs of farmers, food producers and consumers across Europe.
Smartchain promotes a more favorable framework for sustainable, local, healthier and ethically produced food in Europe, an issue which comes into sharper focus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and as consumer trends for transparency gather pace.
Other vulnerabilities of food supply chains have also recently been highlighted in cyberattacks on the likes of Brazil-based meat industry giant JBS, which paid US$11 million in ransom to end the cyber attack that saw its operations hacked and disrupted.
A distinct alternative to traditional supply chains, SFSCs are cooperative systems that include very few intermediaries, increasing sustainability, transparency, social relations and fairer prices for farmers and consumers, according to the Smartchain report.
Improving sustainability of SFSCs
The key findings are laid out in a lengthy report that serves as a toolbox of analysis and recommendations for European food businesses. Later today, Smartchain partners will share their main discoveries in a conference supporting SFSCs.
They include aspects like logistic improvements and creating new sales channels, particularly tapping into the growing online market that has spiked over the last 18 months as consumers increasingly turn online for their food purchases.
Online marketplaces offer clear benefits of selling local products 24/7 to an increasing group of potential customers without the burden of a brick-and-mortar store.
Different types of SFSCs across Europe, such as on-farm direct sales, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and cooperatives, and their regulatory frameworks, helped shape the recommendations in the agri-food sector.
“During three years of intense work, Smartchain analyzed 18 Short Food Supply Chains from nine different countries to understand the factors that play a role in their success, but also to identify their main needs, barriers and bottlenecks, with a focus on the consumer’s perspective,” explains Dr. F. Javier Casado Hebrard from the University of Hohenheim, Smartchain project manager.
“In the Smartchain booklet, farmers, food producers and other SFSCs practitioners can find applicable solutions, recommendations and useful tips to improve business performance while increasing sustainability. We also developed a series of actionable policy recommendations for decision-makers to support SFSCs and their competitiveness.”
Smartchain also identified some of the hindering factors that explain why producers and consumers do not embrace SFSC.
They include aspects like the perishability of products, limited and unpredictable product volumes, limited labor, poor direct access to consumers, lack of trust among other chain actors and low negotiating power with retailers, large service providers, large customers intermediaries and municipal Governments.
The report flags that with the appropriate innovations, the image, products and services of the short-chain organizations can become more appealing for consumers, supporting their choice of fresh, healthy and nutritious local products.
Social innovation at the core of the SFSCs’ shift
Another part of the report focuses on ‘social innovations,’ which empower people and enhance their capacity to act. They can change how people relate, think, or interact and how people eventually work together.
They create something new, such as new relationships, fresh mentalities, and novel ways of working with others.
The Smartchain guide also focuses on social innovations for SFSCs and assessing their sustainability from an economic, environmental, and social perspective.
Additionally, it presents the results from an analysis of consumers’ value perception and attitudes toward SFSCs. It provides suggestions on how to reach greater acceptance of this type of supply chain.
“SFSCs can be viewed as cooperative systems of different actors (like producers, processors, and consumers) who choose to act together. If these actors also embrace social innovations – if they change how they relate, think, or interact – their SFSC will be better positioned to become a vibrant social living system that evolves, thrives, and makes a constant positive social impact. Therefore, social innovations can contribute to the enhancement of a society’s capacity to be proactive and respond to local and global challenges,” says the report.
Smartchain was coordinated by the University of Hohenheim and received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and Innovation program.
The finalization of the report closely follows a wide range of stakeholders signing up to industry’s movement for more sustainable food systems in Europe, including Nestlé, Mondelēz and FoodDrinkEurope. The pledges will lead to a more nutrition-focused product reformulation and putting environmentally friendly strategies at the heart of food production.
By Gaynor Selby
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