More jobs. More money in the local economy. More resilient supply chains. Better food. Less CO2, and other pollution. Advocates of local food "webs" point to all kinds of advantages from reducing the distance between field and plate. And that’s before you even talk about the less tangible benefits of sourcing from someone you know, rather than from a company whose interests are elsewhere.
The problem—as ever—is how? How can people who want to buy locally meet those who want to sell locally?
Ed Dowding, founder of a new U.K. site called Sustaination, thinks the answer is a social media platform that helps local people collaborate, and do business.
The site, which is set to launch fully in February, describes itself as a "dating site for local food," though a food-directed LinkedIn may be a better description.
Users key in their postcode (zip), allowing them to see buyers and sellers in their area, and describe what they are looking for or offering. A farmer, say, might ask his current customers to join him, so they vouch for him as a good supplier. In turn, those customers can get in contact with other suppliers, and so on.
Dowding doesn’t dismiss farmers markets and direct-to-consumer models. But he says they are limited because of the hassle involved for all sides. Farmers have to worry about marketing and web-order fulfillment, when they have tons of other things to think about. Restaurants and pubs, meanwhile, have to search around dozens of suppliers to find what they are looking for, when it’s a lot easier to go to a wholesaler.
"You have to call up 20 or 30 local producers to find one that has what you need, and find someone who can deliver it next Monday, and keep on delivering it every Monday after that. If you’re getting stuff from five different farms, it becomes a lot easier to put just put in an order with your big local wholesaler," he says. "There is a great deal of local sourcing going on already. But it’s mostly because they know they should, not because it’s easy."
Dowding argues that local food need not mean "premium" luxury. Quite the opposite: If businesses can source direct, taking out middlemen, they should be able to cut costs, he says. "You can get much better value going direct, or by minimizing the length of the supply chain."
Sustaination will operate a "freemium" model, where signing up is free, but actual business costs money. Members within a 15-mile radius will pay the least (in the area of £3 a month), while people doing business over longer distances will pay more (up to £15 a month).
Aside from operating expenses, all revenues will be plowed back into the site. Dowding says he would eventually like to offer loans to entrepreneurs to do deliveries in their area. In general, he says, local and regional food networks need to improve distribution if they are to compete against supermarkets and other major players.
Sustaination is part of a movement to map existing food webs to make local commerce more viable. As part of its beta phase, the site is taking part in a project that aims to map six local food webs around the U.K. Dowding says the pilot will help build out the data on the site, and fine-tune the model.
Dowding is well-positioned to make Sustaination work. As well as passionate and articulate about food, he is also a hardcore geo-information systems professional. For much of the last decade, he’s worked on emergency planning systems for government and the insurance industry.
He aims with Sustaination to bring some of the clarity of London’s emergency planning system to local food networks. That, and empowering local producers and consumers to buy and sell.
"If you give people the tools to help themselves, they will use them. If you structure the business in such a way that all you need is self-interest to make it work, then everyone will just take it and run with it."