The local food dashboard

Last changed: 04 October 2021

Are local food systems a solution to achieve global sustainability goals? This project examines the potential of local food systems to drive a sustainable transformation of food production and consumption.

The emergence of local food systems is a global grass-root movement that needs to be more systematically analysed and more intelligibly presented to show how these initiatives collectively contribute to more sustainable food production-consumption patterns.

How do local food systems perform in relation to social, ecological and economic sustainability? How is small-scale food production linked to rural development?

With the help of on-site observations and interviews in Uppsala and Västerbotten counties in Sweden, sustainability performance for these initiatives is evaluated at farm and landscape level. A simple graphical tool - a local food dashboard - will be developed that can be used by both producers and consumers to support decision making for developing more sustainable local food systems.

Local food initiatives exist in a number of different forms in Sweden and the focus of the project is on the most established - such as the farmer's market or farm shops - but also on the new initiatives that are rapidly developing around the country, such as shreds, meat and vegetable boxes and cooperative agriculture.

What makes a local food system sustainable?

Because local food initiatives are very diverse by nature, their contribution to shaping a more sustainable food system is often difficult to assess in an objective manner. It is however important to be able to connect their practices to some key food sustainability principles.

We set to employ an online Delphi-like method inspired by the approach implemented by Boylan et al. (2019), i.e. “a structured, iterative process of collecting opinions and providing controlled feedback […] to reach a consensus on complex issues among a panel of experts”. The ‘online’ in our case means that these opinions are collected through remote one-on-one interactions as researchers are individually replying to an online survey without discussing between each other. To undertake this, we have chosen to crowdsource expert insights by developing a survey addressed to scholars working with sustainability issues (but not necessarily food sustainability), predominantly at SLU, in order to get a broad but informed understanding of these implications. In the first section we asked respondents to assess their degree of agreement with a series of statements about local food sustainability (“A sustainable local food system is...”).

To design the survey, we have used and adapted the works of Todorovic et al. (2018), Schmutz et al. (2018) and Boylan et al. (2019) in order to identify a list of the main defining features of sustainable local food systems. The respondents were asked to provide their own assessment of what a sustainable local food system entails by agreeing or disagreeing with various statements. In the survey, the statements were not categorised and their order was randomized each time. However, for the purpose of this brief analysis, it is interesting to relate the statements with the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, environmental and social).

The figure shows how sustainability researchers assess the importance of various societal factors in contributing to a sustainable local food system. Wellbeing in farming communities was the statement that researchers most strongly agreed with, followed by ethical choices at farm level.
Regarding the social aspects of local food sustainability, scholars clearly endorsed the issue of wellbeing in farming communities with about 70% of ‘Strongly agree’ opinions. This may be biased by the belonging of most respondents to a department with a specialty in rural and agricultural studies. The ‘ethics’ attribute was also clearly endorsed by respondents (about 55%). The attributes characterising identity and culinary tradition were the ones with the lowest ‘strongly agree’ response rate (respectively about 30% and 20%) and the ones with the largest neutral stand or even objection.
The figure shows how sustainability researchers assess the importance of various environmental factors in contributing to a sustainable local food system. Agricultural and biological diversity in cultural and natural landscapes was the statement that researchers most strongly agreed with, followed by the reduction of fossil fuel energy for food production and distribution and the reduction of food waste.
The environmental attribute with the strongest endorsement addresses agricultural and biological diversity (about 80%). The issues of energy, and more specifically fossil fuel usage, and food waste were also endorsed with respectively about 70% and 60% of ‘strongly agree’ responses. Eco-packaging was the attribute received the smallest strong endorsement.
The figure shows how sustainability researchers assess the importance of various economic factors in contributing to a sustainable local food system. The reliability of food supply within a reasonable distance was the statement that researchers most strongly agreed with, followed by ensuring stable and viable revenues for producers and making ‘good food’ affordable for all.
The economic attribute that received the most positive endorsement is the one addressing the reliability of the food supply chain, with about 60% of ‘strongly agree’ responses. Ensuring stable and viable revenues for producers received as well about 50% of ‘strongly agree’ responses. Overall, responses regarding economic attributes are more balanced than for the social and environmental ones.

Further readings

Boylan, S., E. Sainsbury, A.-M. Thow, C. Degeling, L. Craven, D. Stellmach, T.P. Gill and Y. Zhang (2019) A healthy, sustainable and safe food system: Examining the perceptions and role of the australian policy actor using a delphi survey. Public health nutrition, 22(16) pp. 2921-2930

Schmutz, U., M. Kneafsey, C.S. Kay, A. Doernberg and I. Zasada (2018) Sustainability impact assessments of different urban short food supply chains: Examples from london, uk. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 33(6) pp. 518-529

Todorovic, V., M. Maslaric, S. Bojic, M. Jokic, D. Mircetic and S. Nikolicic (2018) Solutions for more sustainable distribution in the short food supply chains. Sustainability, 10(10) p. 3481