How do we achieve a food system that is sustainable and social and offers the highest quality food? Short food supply chains are often considered part of the answer to that question. They stand for increased transparency, trust, equity, and growth within the food supply system, and are therefore often regarded as catalysts for a new sustainable and future-proof food system.
But in current conventional food chains, small farmers and cooperatives often have little bargaining power. And it is difficult or even impossible for the consumer to trace food back to a specific producer or local area. In addition, short chains are not well recognized and protected in the EU system. With respect to the legal aspects of the system, regulation is aimed mostly at large companies, not small business. Compliance with regulation is complex and costly, and legal opportunities may be difficult to realize. All this creates confusion and uncertainty for short chain suppliers.
‘From a legal perspective the concept of short chains is very complex and fuzzy. People think of short chains as: open, social, local, quality, environmentally friendly. But these aspects are hard to translate into laws and regulations. For legal aims we need an inclusive concept. This may well have different definitions for different areas, but it must be coherent. The law should be in line with the societal context and must reflect and capture the real world,’ says dr. Hanna Schebesta who is in the lead of the Food System Solidarity research line within the LAW Group of Wageningen University & Research.
New business models for short food chains
Part of the Law Group’s research on short food supply chains takes place in the project ‘Smart Solutions in Short Food Supply Chains’, SMARTCHAIN, a three-year H2020 project with 43 partners from all over Europe including key stakeholders from the domain of short chains.
SMARTCHAIN analyses technological, regulatory, social, economic and environmental factors impacting the viability of short food supply chains and collects innovative solutions to these. These can be low-cost technological innovations; best practices for complying with hygiene rules; or smartphone applications to facilitate cooperative sales points. The project researches consumer recognition and measures environmental, economic and social impacts of short food chains in order to critically assess and provide evidence for the role that these chains can take in the circular economy. ‘On this basis, the project proposes new business models for short food chains and presents policy recommendations. Our group provides input on all legal aspects of this project and focuses on regulatory obstacles, gaps, and best practices in relation to short food supply chains’, says Hanna Schebesta.
Useful ready made solutions
Part of the SMARTCHAIN project is to evaluate food laws on bottlenecks for short chain suppliers and suggest legal solutions for producers and propose modifications to the law. ‘This may amount to law changes, but may also concern legal instruments to create more space for short chain suppliers’, says Hanna Schebesta. ‘This is important. Because primary producers in short chains are often over-requested in laws and regulations. A salmonella outbreak in a small kitchen cannot be compared to an outbreak in a large factory. Legislation and regulations must take various dimensions into account.’
Schebesta mentions the current COVID-19 hygiene regulations as a strong example. ‘How should you, as a short chain supplier, ensure proper disinfection? The existing rules are mainly aimed at bacterial contamination. In the project, we investigated whether there are useful ready made solutions. We found a best practice aimed at preventing the spread of the Norovirus when picking berries. With these kinds of solutions we make the lives of suppliers a lot easier.’
Unlock the potential of our food systems
The central goal of the SMARTCHAIN project is to foster and accelerate the shift towards collaborative short food supply chains. Schebesta: ‘We translate the results of our research, including the insights from 18 case studies and 9 Innovation & collaboration hubs across Europe, into policy recommendations for the EU and national governments so that they can support the important social role that short chains play in the system. With our Food System Solidarity research line – including the SMARTCHAIN project – the LAW Group helps to unlock the potential of our food systems by promoting a more favourable framework for sustainable, local, healthier and ethically produced food in Europe.’