Accelerated automation and digital advances in the world of food retail

By Abbie Winton, Alliance Manchester Business School, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted consumers to buy food online, which meant that food retailers had to adapt quickly, making changes that may have long lasting consequences for the sector.

Supermarket shopping of old has, perhaps, changed forever. For most food retailers, trading online has long lacked appeal due to the low margins which it offers, making it less profitable than operating from brick-and-mortar stores.  However, the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unforeseen shift as many consumers moved to buying food online (growing 25.5% in 2020 compared to the 8.5% previously anticipated). This prompted retailers to expand their dotcom offering almost overnight to both meet demand and stay competitive during a time when customers were restricted in their ability to do their shopping in-store. Alongside expanding their in-house logistics services, five of the big-name supermarkets started to use external delivery services provided by Amazon, Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

A surge in supermarket employment

To meet the excess demand, all of the major retailers took on additional workers. Some were hired permanently in areas which were expanding for the first time, while others were hired temporarily as retailers tackled the uncertainties presented by the national lockdown. Online recruitment mobilised vast numbers of potential workers, many of whom had been furloughed or made redundant from their previous jobs. Highly precarious contracts were offered in large numbers, meaning employees could be more easily let go when demand eased. Some were hired temporarily to minimise the effects of panic buying on stock, yet the majority of new jobs were in warehousing and logistics (including picking, packing and driving) to service the move to online shopping.

The gendering of retail work

Retail work has historically been gendered in terms of the roles which men and women carry out. For example, the move online and growing use of self-checkouts in-store have in part helped facilitate a reduction in the need for checkout staff. These jobs have long been disproportionately filled by women who needed the ‘flexibility’ to manage work alongside caring responsibilities. In contrast, there has already been an expansion of new roles in warehousing, logistics and fulfilment which have traditionally been filled by men and demand hours less likely to suit the needs of the household.

Although there have been some improvements in the occupational segmentation of retail roles in recent years, changing demands mean the future of work in food retail is likely to be somewhat gendered if current patterns persist. To avoid exacerbating these gender inequalities, measures are needed to ensure women are equipped to enter into logistics and distribution; for example, employee-led flexible working arrangements and parental leave would allow for an easier transition into these roles.

High versus low tech models

While online shopping was stimulated during the crisis, the method for fulfilling these orders remained heavily reliant on labour instead of technology. Although some retailers have begun to expand into semi-automated warehouses to fulfil orders, most of the picking and packing is carried out on the shop floor or in centralised distribution centres by members of staff. Predicting a sustained move online, food retailers have made their plans to open new regional dotcom distribution centres across the country public. If these jobs are to be accessible to all, additional considerations will have to be made.

Research has shown that women are more likely to rely on public transport to get to work and thus tend to take jobs which are closer to home/schools. However, the location of distribution centres tends to be in harder-to-reach areas, making these jobs less accessible to women. Therefore, provisions would have to be made to improve transportation routes to these areas (both in terms of accessibility and safety). Secondly, the ‘pick rates’ which dictate dotcom work can often be challenging for disabled and older workers to sustain. Reasonable adjustments will be required where necessary to accommodate for these groups. Finally, moving from a customer service to a logistics-oriented role might not be preferable for all workers. Accounting for this, further measures may have to be put in place for workers choosing to leave the sector, such as extending the reskilling bootcamps already provided.

Within the sector, Ocado is the only major exception to the human labour approach. As a leader in warehouse technology, Ocado already has a portfolio of hi-tech fulfilment centre which uses propriety-design ‘bots’ to pick and pack orders. This is likely to be a desirable model to pursue in the longer term for those retailers with the capital to do so. However, for those who do not, they may approach the Ocado-model with some caution. Ocado had to temporarily suspend new orders as they were unable to expand capacity in the same way as other retailers, yet others were able to expand capacity by taking on a large hyper-flexible pool of workers to pick up the work which technology could not. If this approach to organising labour is deemed more convenient to retailers post-crisis, it could detrimentally impact the quality of work available in the sector in the future.

Characteristics of new retail work

Attempts to outsource labour are becoming more common throughout the sector. In a recent case, it was brought to light that outsourced drivers at Sainsbury’s were being paid up to £12,000 less than direct hires. However, prompted by the demands of the crisis, many more have opted to outsource delivery to third-party platforms to avoid the costs associated with developing their in-house infrastructures. Partnership agreements with platforms such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Amazon have allowed food retailers to make use of the low-cost delivery services offered by these providers, which rely on a network of bogus self-employed couriers to fulfil deliveries the same-day.

The longevity of this approach beyond the crisis remains unknown, yet it is a concerning development for the future of employment relations in that growing segment of the sector. The quality of work available within the sector could deteriorate as mentioned, but the quantity of work available could also decline if some choose to adopt an approach, similar to Ocado, which relies on longer-term investments in ‘big-ticket’ automating technologies. However, there is little evidence of yet that either approach is likely to dominate regardless of what certain predictions suggest. Therefore, policymakers should ensure that the jobs which remain do not reinforce the existing inequalities which are endemic to service work and have been further exacerbated by the current crisis.

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The economic crisis and food insecurity

By James Coe, Senior Policy Advisor, University of Liverpool

The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that the government has more latitude for fiscal intervention than had previously been assumed.

Support through furlough, business loans, schemes for the self-employed and targeted sector schemes has opened up a new sense that the government has significant capacity to maintain more income, jobs and livelihoods than the market would otherwise. Therefore, in the current economic circumstances we collectively face, there is an understanding that preserving the social safety net requires greater intervention and flexibility than was possible through previous benefit transfer schemes, particularly as rates of unemployment and business failure continue to grow.

In combination, this sets an expectation that the government will not only do the right thing for the economy in the abstract, but will make concrete social interventions to maintain a minimum standard of life. As job losses pile up, the economy stutters, and more people access government schemes and services, there is very little political clamour for a smaller government. Indeed, there is a near yearning for a compassionate form of governance. The capacity to intervene in the economy at large also means there is an expectation the government will act on a more targeted basis in the case of free school meals.

All the while, as the debate over how to provide food in the face of this unfurling emergency continues, the question of why it is necessary receives less attention. The structural causes of food insecurity can be longstanding through low income, inability to access sufficient state financial support or chronic ill health. Equally, there can be sudden changes in circumstance such as loss of income, accidents or unexpected costs. There is therefore a dual imperative. A need to tackle the structural causes of food poverty and an urgent need to provide food for those who cannot access it.

As the Food Aid Network write: “So, while we press on to fill an ever-widening gap with food parcels we must keep reminding our government that, of course, sticking plasters are no solution to poverty.

“The COVID-19 crisis shines a spotlight on the immense inequalities in our society, but funding the distribution of more emergency food parcels will never prove a real solution for those people deserving the dignity to be able to afford to buy food for themselves. And worse, this default reaction could very well embed food banking into our society for good.”

Structural

The government does not currently measure food insecurity, but a question has been added to the Family Resource Survey, which will report this data in 2021. Until then, we have unofficial counts with food banks assessing changing demand for food parcels. The Social Metrics Commission (SMC), who are compiling such data note, “SMC’s analysis of official data finds those in hardship are more likely to have poor health and lack qualifications than those above the poverty line.” In a separate report, they further note “those employed prior to the [COVID-19] crisis and already in the deepest forms of poverty have been most heavily impacted by the economic fallout.”

Therefore, within the higher education sector part of the work of alleviating food poverty is enhancing and growing the work to tackle the root causes of economic disparities. As the national financial picture worsens, the work of outreach and widening participation becomes more central. Firstly, this is because attending higher education is an effective route to increase income, but secondly, it is also a temporary way out of worklessness at a time when the economy is depressed. If this is to be most successful, this individual benefit should not come at the cost of an economy which builds in wider economic disparities for those who do not obtain a degree.

Local economies

Secondly, as we’ve all seen on Twitter there is now daily reporting of which companies have done well by their staff, customers and communities. As with after the last financial crash, we may well see a focus on local suppliers and supply chains, both as symbolic gestures of solidarity but also, as a tangible measure to support recovery. Only recently, Homebaked, a local bakery based in Anfield, talked about how this may force a revaluation of community endeavour. Universities, as huge purchasers, may take time to reflect where we buy and our criteria for doing so, as a means of bolstering local economies, and in turn alleviating poverty on our doorstep.

Ongoing crisis

Of course, while these are important interventions, we have a role in thinking about the unfurling crisis. Universities provide ongoing financial support to their students in terms of bursaries. These are likely to come under more strain, and given they rely on annualised student finance data, are less nimble in responding to the emergent crisis than government support. Therefore, a clear measure we can consider is delving into our data on bursary access, correlating that with public data to see the size of the possible gap, and planning for an increase in need for greater hardship funding. This is particular crucial at a time when university finances are under pressure.

Secondly, it’s likely students through students’ unions are already volunteering in food banks and other community outreach projects. Liverpool Guild of Students, both supports food banks through donating non-perishable food from students as part of their Leave Liverpool Tidy project, and has coordinated information on where students can provide support. Signposting and promoting these initiatives could be impactful in growing the support they can provide.

The long-term role for universities

The university sector is clearly going through significant challenge and change. In the long-term, the factors which cause food poverty are multi-variated, difficult and beyond the reach of higher education to solve alone. Practically, the work of the likes of University College London and the Child Poverty Action Group demonstrates how we can analyse the causes and impact the debate on food poverty. Civically, working with local leaders and policymakers to share data, expertise and evidence, can only support effective intervention. Locally, understanding the manifestation of the COVID-19 economic crisis on our door steps is a key to supporting our own students during this difficult time.

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‘Bouncing back better’ from COVID-19 requires overcoming systemic lock-ins

By Professor Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading and Senior Fellow, Defra Systems Research Programme

What will the impacts of COVID-19 be on the environment?

As I write this blog, analyses of UK datasets since lockdown from March 2020 to the current day have shown major reductions in greenhouses gases and significant improvements in air quality in terms of nitrous oxides. (However, levels of fine particulate matter showed less change.)

There have also been many reports in popular media of wildlife benefitting from the lower human activity levels. These benefits were always going to be short-lived during the lockdown. They demonstrate what is possible, but unfortunately they are not worth celebrating as a sustainable achievement for environmental protection.

To do so, would be a bit like holding your breath and suggesting it proves you don’t need oxygen. As governments struggle to get national economic sustainability back on track, these environmental sustainability gains are quickly lost. We have seen this with the gradual creeping up of air pollution levels since lockdown has lifted.

What about in the longer term? What might happen to environmental quality as we recover from the pandemic? There is lots of talk about transformative responses to the coronavirus crisis, as this European Joint Research Centre report discusses.

Beyond optimistic rhetoric though, it is quite possible that our socioeconomic system could return to a broadly similar configuration. The graph below shows what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash.

Even though the system was perturbed and CO2 emissions temporarily reduced, certain factors ensured the return of the globalised socioeconomic system to its previous structural configuration.

Of course, let’s not be all doom and gloom; some aspects of our socioeconomic systems may well get better after COVID-19. The lockdown seems to have seen increased public engagement with nature.

Analysis shows strong links between access to greenspace and both physical and mental health during lockdown, further reinforcing our previous understanding of the important relationship between greenspace and well-being. And, if these higher levels of nature engagement stick that will be a great thing.

Graph showing what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash

Equally, however, some things could get worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic. One worrying issue for the environment sector is the economy. The environment can end up near the bottom of the priority list during economic recession when it gets seen as a ‘luxury’.

That seems to be happening again, at least in some countries where economic stimulus packages have not been very ‘green’ and have instead propped up environmentally harmful industries. For example, China has relaxed environmental rules and the USA has allowed companies to break pollution laws.

Therefore, it’s crucial to articulate the importance of a healthy environment. This is especially pertinent in the UK because the compounding urgency to strike trade deals after Brexit could mean food sustainability standards are lowered. Hence, the UK environmental footprint risks getting even bigger.

How can this be tackled? One important aspect is to better understand the factors that keep socioeconomic systems locked into unsustainable trajectories. A first step is developing common language to allow the essential crosstalk between different academic disciplines around system transformations.

A recent study from an international workshop I was involved in found that many different terms are used to describe when a system is stuck in a ‘bad’ trajectory with these including ‘inertia’, ‘socioecological trap’ and ‘perverse resilience’. The term ‘lock-in’ was most broadly understood across disciplines.

‘Lock in’ mechanisms, often comprising negative feedback loops, ensure the return of the socioeconomic system to its previous configuration even in the face of perturbations. They can be structural, regulatory or legislative factors, knowledge constraints, vested interests influencing power dynamics, sociocultural factors, or all the above and more. Understanding these diverse lock-in mechanisms is key to being able to transform systems, as we have found for overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system.

To enable a genuine green recovery from COVID-19, lock-ins that need to be overcome include structural factors, such as the perverse subsidies we pay for farming. In addition to this, significant lock-ins also occur at the level of individual mindsets and attitudes. These are fundamentally important, as ultimately it is people’s mindsets that support or disrupt the prevailing socioeconomic structure and set the ‘rules of the game’, as systems thinker Donella Meadows puts it.

In a global recession, the dominant policy and media discourse is often about economic growth, yet we need to convey how environmental sustainability is essential to underpin economic stability, as well as human health.

Such arguments lend weight to the narrative of why we need transformation to a new post-COVID-19 food system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable whilst at the same time provides nutritious and affordable food. Focussing on mindsets and attitudes also allows us to understand and influence how dietary choice and consumption patterns are key factors that must change to enable positive system transformation.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 presents a window of opportunity for a more sustainable future. Reconfiguring our socioeconomic systems for lasting positive change, however, needs more than pretty words. It needs to be a substantial coordinated effort on lock-in mechanisms at both structural and deeper psychological levels.

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Fairtrade and the COVID-19 response – lessons for business and the food system

By Tim Aldred, Head of Policy, Fairtrade Foundation

As the rapid spread of COVID-19 has provoked emergency restrictions across the world, colleagues across the Fairtrade movement have been looking hard at the risks to the 1.6 million farmers and workers in the Fairtrade system, and the many millions more in their families and communities.

The numbers are mind-boggling. The International Labour Organization estimates that 94 percent of the world’s workforce are living with some form of workplace closure, alongside a drop in working hours equivalent to 305 million jobs.

The United Nations estimates that nearly 50 million more people will be pushed into extreme poverty. At Fairtrade, we immediately started asking what we could do to support farmers facing this terrible storm.

Conversations with retailers and supply chain businesses also made clear just how challenging it was to keep food and other essential supplies moving to the UK’s supermarkets. With nearly half of the UK’s food coming from overseas, and around ten to fifteen percent from Asia, Africa and Latin America, the global shutdown could have led to shortages on the shelves.

Fairtrade farmers and workers, and millions of others like them around the world, quickly became recognised as “key workers”. Their well being was understood to be directly linked to yours and mine; a well being, of course, which became suddenly and profoundly threatened, in several ways:

  • Most obviously, the immediate public health emergency. How could farmers and workers be protected at work and at home? There were urgent needs for protective equipment, additional sanitation, distancing measures and health education, for example.
  • Producers of shopping basket staples, such as banana farmers, typically saw demand for their produce rise or remain stable. However, necessary movement restrictions at work (including shielding leave for older workers) and transport difficulties for shipments made production harder and more expensive.
  • Some sectors saw potentially catastrophic drops in income. “Non-essential” goods such as flowers, and “delayable” purchases such as storable commodities, saw huge drops in sales, sometimes in a matter of days. Garments and flowers were two sectors hit hard as consumers simply stopped buying overnight. Flowers were also badly affected by the sudden drop in air freight capacity. The flower industry in East Africa saw mass layoffs, with businesses at risk of permanent closure. Migrant and casual workers are especially vulnerable, without the protection of employment contracts, and with movement restrictions preventing travel to work.
  • The risk of human rights abuse in factories and fields increased, partly because movement restrictions and lockdowns have prevented the kind of workplace scrutiny from buyers, researchers, journalists and auditors that would usually be taking place. In addition, the drop in incomes and availability of work could be putting pressure on people to accept poor or even abusive working conditions. Such risks are heightened in settings with pre-existing human rights concerns.
Business responses – what does good look like?

The grave context means that action by retailers, brands and traders during the crisis has been (and continues to be) critical for the protection of livelihoods, human rights and the public health of vulnerable suppliers. At Fairtrade, we’ve been offering advice and taking action ourselves. The following points summarise our advice to retailers, brands and supply chain businesses.

  • Support public health at work
    Businesses can support their suppliers in taking emergency measures such as establishing social distancing and utilising protective equipment. With misinformation about COVID-19 widespread, sharing accurate health advice is also important.
  • Immediate business protection
    With a high risk of business failure, emergency funding to help cover cash flow problems can help to keep workers paid or to pay for measures such as furlough and shielding leave. As well as looking after the workforce, preventing businesses from going under in the “first crunch” also makes it easier to restart or scale up production.
  • Financing and responsible purchasing practices
    With money so tight, predictable, reliable financing and prompt payment of bills is very important. Prompt payment terms, pre-financing, reassurance that existing contracts will be honoured, and commitment to future orders all help producers to plan and to keep paying wages.
  • Making human rights expectations clear
    With human rights risks heightened, buyers need to be clear to suppliers that there is an expectation to see human rights, wages commitments and public health measures upheld, even within these exceptional circumstances. If such messages come alongside commitments to help producers with financing or other support, there will be reassurance that the buyers are not about to cut and run, and therefore less temptation to cut corners.
  • Market intelligence
    Information about the UK market and insight into future buying trends will be critical for producers, helping them plan and prepare with as much confidence as possible, despite the uncertainties.
  • Advocacy
    Governments too need to hear what is going on in supply chains as a result of COVID-19. They set policy for managing the crisis and will commit large sums towards recovery and rebuilding. We need policy to back protective measures in the short term, and the kind of sustainable, resilient supply chains that are needed both by supply chain workers and UK consumers in the long term. As we move into the recovery phase, there is an opportunity to rebuild fairly and sustainably, but this could be lost if business does not raise its voice alongside civil society.
What has Fairtrade itself been doing?

In the Fairtrade system, we’ve taken a number of steps to support producers through the crisis. We’ve been coordinating across the Fairtrade system, bringing together our producer networks and market-facing organisations, to support producers in several ways:

  • Fairtrade Premium
    We made a temporary change to the rules on Fairtrade Premium use. Fairtrade Premium is an additional payment made by Fairtrade buyers to farmers and workers groups. Producers could use these additional financial payments for a wider range of uses than usual, including salaries. It has been widely used by producers across the world to pay for furloughs and shielding leave, job protection, public health measures, and other steps.
  • Human rights
    Our advice to producers was accompanied by a statement of Fairtrade expectations with regard to maintaining standards including human rights, wages and health.
  • Market intelligence
    We have been sharing regular briefings with producers on UK market conditions and trends, to help them understand the trends in the UK retail market and inform their planning.
  • Financing
    We have established a Fairtrade relief fund with initial resources of €3.1 million to support immediate protection and restart needs. This is underwritten with reserve funding and seeks to leverage donor and company funding.
  • Advocacy
    We have produced a series of briefings aimed at decision makers, which have been shared widely with politicians, businesses and beyond. We’ve also taken part in webinars and press work to draw attention to the issues facing producers, as well as encouraged business and donor responses. As discussions begin on recovery plans, we’ll be continuing to put the position of Fairtrade farmers and supporters forward.
What are we learning?

The crisis has shown us just how fragile our food supply chains are. With many producers in developing countries already working on very low margins. With workers close to the poverty line, the shock of COVID-19 has seriously challenged the production of food and the well being of whole communities.

There are important lessons here for business and government decision makers. How can we be better prepared to face the risks of future shocks to supply, whether they come from further pandemics or are shocks caused by extreme weather related to the climate crisis?

Some initial reports suggest that supply chains where Fairtrade approaches were operating have often shown impressive resilience through the first months of the crisis. It was also important that producer to buyer relationships were strong and based on a shared commitment to fairness and sustainability. We have received many reports from producers about the ways in which they have been able to offer job protection and furloughs, introduce health measures and keep businesses running, despite the extreme circumstances. Why might this be?

Where this has happened within Fairtrade producer groups the following may apply:

  • A strong base of investment in community infrastructure, medical facilities and possibly better household assets, with this being linked to better value received over time through Fairtrade Premium investments and (where applicable) the minimum price mechanism.
  • The release of Fairtrade Premium for emergency support has clearly been very significant as a buffer for job protection and emergency measures. Again, this is linked to additional value paid over time.
  • There has often been impressive community and/or worker organisation in response, arguably supported by Fairtrade’s focus on producer empowerment.

The approach taken by buyers also seems to be significant. Where issues such as human rights, environmental measures and poverty reduction are embedded in company values and structures, they are more likely to be “top of mind”. In this context, the business case to invest quickly to support vulnerable suppliers has been well understood, and the expertise to take appropriate action has been on hand within the company.

For example, Waitrose quickly announced emergency funding to help suppliers in developing countries with public health advice and improve sanitation, as well as committing to speed up payments to vulnerable suppliers, alongside other actions. Co-operative Food committed significant emergency funding for their Fairtrade producers and announced human rights due diligence measures as part of a package of support.

Tate & Lyle sugars recently confirmed to me that they had been able to replicate the communication and safety measures adopted in the UK premises in their overseas operations within days and ensure that appropriate provisions were agreed with the cane farmers who supply them. They felt that the relationships and structures developed through Fairtrade were instrumental in this being done in a timely way.

Sadly, this kind of good practice is not universal. We also heard a different kind of story, notably from the “fast fashion” industry, of buyers cancelling contracts as the crisis hit, leaving suppliers and their workforce, high and dry.

An opportunity to learn and redesign

So far, these examples are based on personal experiences of working with and within Fairtrade supply chains. Independent research into these and similar experiences would be invaluable. If there is strong evidence that businesses practicing fairer trading practices have seen their supply chains stand up better in the face of the pandemic, then the implications for business planning and government policy on trade, food security and environment could be huge.

Fairtrade has argued for years that the problems of poverty, human rights and environmental damage linked to the food we buy will not be solved unless farmers and workers are paid fairly. The pandemic experience makes clear that failure to pay fair prices is not just something that hurts farmers and workers, it also progressively stacks up the risk of future shocks to our food system and food supplies.

By contrast, paying farmers fairly, investing in decent livelihoods and building community resources like housing, schools and health facilities, as well as paying living wages and incomes, have always been intrinsically the right thing to do. We can now see that building the resilience of farmers is also key to protecting the well being and food security of the world’s future consumers.

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The current situation: COVID-19, urban agriculture and the need to change the food system

By Jacob Nickles, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield

We are living in one of the most challenging times many of us will have had in our lives. While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our day-to-day lives, it has highlighted just how delicate our food system is.

In my role as not only a researcher, but a small food business operator, I have seen multiple indicators of just how sensitive the system is, with fluctuations in price and stocking uncertainty. COVID-19 has really emphasised the need to not only change the food system, but also how quickly changes in behaviour can immediately affect the environment.

This situation has provided us with the evidence to reinforce the message that we need to focus on looking at how we can produce more of our own food, to do it sustainably and to do it securely. We have the capacity to produce much more of our own food within cities, bringing food security home to local areas by harnessing the idea of urban agriculture.

Over the coming months, as the UK comes to terms with the new distanced way of life, I expect we’ll come to understand some of the broader implications to our current food system, especially when we look at farm labour and its availability or lack thereof. Now is the time to embrace urban agriculture through optimising labour, resources and space, to bring experts together to discuss their challenges, as well as work out constructive solutions and implement substantive change. We need to be able to build resilience into the system, so that in times of crisis we can all afford to eat without facing price fluctuations or reduced product availability.

One way we can help with this, is by providing the public with the tools and knowledge to grow their own food, by simplifying non-traditional growing systems and encouraging the boosted community spirit. Two current projects with these aims in mind run by the University of Sheffield’s newly-launched Institute for Sustainable Food are the Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market and the Resilience Food Project.

The Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market will continue to build on the success of the urban farm within the old junior school in Tinsley. Some questions have been raised about the future of the site given recent problems, particularly around the availability of government and local funding. However, the University of Sheffield has agreed to support the future direction of the Urban Farm, shifting forward towards an educational facility for local school children, undergraduates and apprentices.

In the coming months (COVID-19 safety dependent), the team will be working on the launch of a local market onsite, where local artisans, craftspeople and experts will be invited to sell goods and deliver training. During the course of this launch event, the site will play host to a number of workshops, intended to cover many areas from entry level gardening, to cooking with home grown produce and everything in between.

The event will also focus on building partnerships, with the University of Sheffield facilitating links between community and commercial organisations and local government. The aim of the event will be to bring life back into the former Victorian school and increase access to food for local residents, whilst developing future urban agriculture plans to meet commercial demand.

The Resilience Food Project will see the creation of financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localised high tech intensive food production method. The micro-farms, designed and manufactured in Sheffield (including the electronics!), draw on the very latest research from the University’s departments of Computer Science (Internet of Things, control systems and data analytics), Animal & Plant Science (microbiome control) and Chemistry (novel substrates for soil-free farming), as well as a number of local commercial, council and community partners.

Furthermore, the Department of Geography and The Urban Institute are working on widening our connection into stakeholders, community groups and city initiatives including responses to the recently declared Climate Emergency and the Sheffield City Region Energy Strategy.

The project aims to address some of the big questions around aquaponics and urban agriculture such as financial viability and cost, resource-efficiency, and environmental impact relative to conventional agriculture and supermarkets. The intention of the project is to gather evidence that could be used to stimulate investor confidence in the new technology. It also aims to evaluate ‘rainbow revenue streams’ to ensure financial sustainability, for example supplementing income from food production with other sources of income, as well as explore ways to involve communities in the co-production of farms and food particularly in more disadvantaged areas. In addition to this, it aims to understand the benefits to communities and individuals of involvement in urban agriculture in terms of health, wellbeing, community cohesion, prosperity and employment.

When considering the role urban agriculture can play in the food system, there are so many questions to be answered. How much food could feasibly be produced in the UK’s cities? What are the most efficient methods to use? How much would it cost? What resources would be needed? What are the regulatory and policy implications? There are barriers to the uptake of urban agriculture and its potential for food production on a significant scale. High among them is a lack of research in this field.

At the University of Sheffield, we are looking at food security through multidisciplinary lenses. We are also seeking to work alongside city councils, entrepreneurs, social enterprises, farmers, big business, other institutions and the general public, in order to significantly change the food system. To create the changes needed, the whole system must be considered, and this means moving well outside our siloed comfort zones and building relationships within the wider community to co-design solutions in order to achieve successful outcomes.

You can find out more on the Institute for Sustainable Food website. Updates will be added as the projects progress.

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