Human Stories

Short Food Supply Chains: Limitations of Law

Short food supply chains represent a great opportunity to support the shift towards more sustainable, inclusive and resilient food systems. Yet, their development is hindered by the presence of demanding and rigid food safety rules designed for longer supply chains.

What are Short Food Supply Chains (SFSC)?

‘Short Food Supply Chain’ (SFSC) is an umbrella term that embodies an alternative to industrialised food production systems. But despite a natural assumption that ‘short’ infers geographical distance, ‘short’, in the context of food supply chains, is actually more reflective of the relation between demand and supply and the interpersonal distance between primary producers and us - the consumer. Because of this, a key feature of SFSCs that sets them apart from industrialised food systems is the limited number of intermediaries  - a key driver of more value-laden and transparent food supply chains.1

What are Short Food Supply Chains good for?

SFSCs symbolise a way to ‘re-socialise’ and ‘re-spatialise’ food. For instance, initiatives such as farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) and ‘pick-your-own’, focus on the production of high-quality foods and are broadly based on mutual assistance and solidarity principles. By making local food more visible in public spaces or involving the final consumers in the production process, they become a powerful template around which to build tighter relationships and business incubators for local food networks.

There are also a number of other intrinsic values associated with shorter supply chains: from enhancing food heritage and cultural identities, to re-vitalizing local economies by supporting the re-circulation of community income and the creation of new jobs. At the same time, the sharing of knowledge and agricultural skills is encouraged through the organisation of local events, workshops, professional training, and even online platforms. With the host of obvious positives, it begs the question - why aren’t they more popular?

Photo: Locals from Ghent, Belgium participating in Community Supported Agriculture (Getty)

Limitations of Short Food Supply Chains

The shortening of supply chains is often considered capable of adjusting some issues generated by the globalization of the agri-food system - such as the intensive exploitation of land and the constant provision of unseasonal food. However, when it comes to food safety, the same principles that aim to reduce the risk of contamination, must apply to any kind of food chain - regardless of its size. For SFSCs, this is a significant challenge hindering their development. The requirement of SFSCs to comply with stringent and often different food safety standards at the international level makes this challenge hard to overcome. 

Despite operating under different circumstances to large scale producers, small farmers are still forced to comply with different layers of legislation and stringent requirements. This “binary” approach - made of rules and exceptions - jeopardises the fundamental role that small farmers play as land keepers, safeguarders of natural resources, key players in the climate change challenges, and boosters of the local economy and social cohesion.

While this is unfortunate, these regulations are not enforced without reason. It is true that some practices being used on small-sized farms may increase the risk of foodborne illness among consumers. Many small facilities do not always have access to enough resources to assure a safe product and they cannot always rely on well-trained employees. The difficulties of this already precarious system are also further aggravated by several factors, like a generalized inability to keep track of and interpret rigid legislation, the lack of resources and knowledge, as well as any tangible help from authorities. 

Flexible regulations: learnings from the European Union

Several actions are on the plate in the European Union. For instance, many of these issues have been highlighted and addressed in the EU’s SmartChain project, which seeks to generate innovative and practical instruments to overcome barriers that restrict the scaling up of SFSCs.6 This focuses on tailor-made solutions, such as designed training targeting small farmers and specific risk management practices and control systems. 

From a legislative standpoint, the EU’s integrated approach “from farm to fork” is globally recognized as an outstanding example of food safety as it guarantees the safety of foodstuffs from the place of primary production up to the market. Under the EU’s Food Hygiene Package - which includes a number of regulations covering all stages of the production, processing, distribution and placing on the market of food - there is movement towards a new balance between implementing rigorous food safety practices and granting enough flexibility to preserve rural food culture and local food supply chains.3 

The ‘principle of flexibility’ was introduced in the Food Hygiene Package to help remedy burdens on small domestic producers. Compared to non-EU competitors, farmers in the EU often pay higher costs to be compliant with domestic legislation, while still being burdened by over-regulation.4 To lighten such financial burdens, the principle of flexibility ensures the application of hygiene rules is proportionate to the risk posed by particular food operations and establishments. For instance, small farmers in SFSCs will only come into contact with a small number of intermediaries from primary supplier to final consumer, so in the case of direct supply of small quantities of produce to the final consumer, the hygiene rules do not apply.

Nevertheless, due to the lack of a common definition for key terms as “small farmers” or “small quantities”, flexibility rules are differently interpreted by national legislation. This may generate a non-harmonized application of the EU law at the national level, and risks putting small farmers originating from more restrictive countries at a disadvantage compared to others.5

Photo: Flexibility in food safety practices can help to preserve rural food culture and local food supply chains (Bernard Annebicque / Getty)

The need to improve legislation 

Despite small farmers’ predominance in the agricultural scenario, both policy leadership and legal interventions are not sufficiently fostering their position in today’s socio-economic narrative. The “small farmers” involved in SFSCs are those that are usually willing to build a tight relation with the final consumer, devoted to co-operation and committed to local economic and social development. However, given the heterogeneity of local farming systems, what is considered a “small farm'' can vary greatly over time and space. The lack of a general legal definition for “small farmer” sometimes makes it unclear where the dividing line between small and large should be drawn. Within the EU, the responsibility to identify “small farmers” is ascribed to Member States but several common criteria are currently being used, such as physical measure, economic size, market participation, labor input, and even social and environmental benefits attached to them. 

Access to different markets is a prerequisite to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. If they are unable to meet food safety challenges, the risk of exclusion will turn into a loss of opportunities. Despite the increasing level of awareness among local food producers of potential issues that could affect the safety of food grown on small farms and then sold through direct channels, it seems there is still a long way to go to bring food safety legislation closer to the local reality.

Even with the new emphasis on sustainability, the demand for food safety within SFSCs is increasing - despite lacking institutional support. Yet due to the weak representation in agricultural policy-making, the tendency to become invisible actors is even more exacerbated by the limited political space allotted to small farmers to express their voice.2 There needs to be greater involvement of small farmers in the decision-making process, as well as finding tools that allow them to easily gain necessary knowledge and expertise to understand and comply with hygiene rules. Rather than focusing only on providing exemptions from stringent legal requirements, legislators should verify whether what they expect from small farmers is something feasible for them and set objectives that are always proportionate to their nature and size. 

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