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Food for thought: Local food and sustainable development

Responsible Tourism

Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru

Last year I spent 3 months researching the appetite for local food in the English hospitality sector, looking in detail at levels of engagement with local produce and suppliers. Whilst this isn’t the time or place to bore you with the details, there are a few general points that are worth sharing – and which broadly tie in with our Fair Trade Adventures Campaign.

Why shorter food supply chains should be promoted

There is a general consensus that local food systems and shorter food supply chains are to be encouraged, demonstrating benefits across the triple bottom line, and contributing to the United Nations sustainable development goals. Global food supply chains can be extremely complex with a multitude of intermediaries between farm and fork. According to the New Economics Foundation, bringing consumers closer to the producers of their food helps to increase awareness of how food is grown, and how this impacts on the environment, as well as the wider community. Local foods also provide a platform for businesses in the hospitality sector to promote their localities and cuisines (and at the same time their businesses) and provide a more authentic experience to their customers.

Additionally, shorter food supply chains are generally less risky for companies, as traceability of produce is key to ensuring they are upholding their own supplier guidelines, and not engaging with producers who violate the basic human rights of their workers. The arguments in favour of local food systems are indeed multifaceted and wide-ranging. These also include lower CO2 emissions from less food miles, rural job creation and preservation, the maintenance of the natural landscape and revitalisation of local heritage.

Local food and local economic development

However, one of the most consensual arguments put forward in favour of local food systems is based on local economic impact, which has the potential to revitalise local economies, build stronger communities, and contribute to sustainable rural livelihoods. Short and simple supply chains assist in retaining more money in the local economy by minimising the number of intermediaries between grower and consumer, allowing farmers to capture a higher percentage of the farm-value share. Whilst this is an important issue in developed countries, it is an even more important one in developing parts of the world, where many more people depend on income from agriculture to support their families.

In many developing countries, tourism completely fails local farmers by excluding them from food supply chains altogether, hotels and restaurants often favouring instead agricultural imports. Indeed, according to the UNCTAD, the average import-related leakage for most developing countries is between 40% and 50% of gross tourism earnings. It would be unfair to blame this situation entirely on the tourism industry. There are also many supply side issues, such as inconsistent availability and quality, and poor infrastructure. However, the tourism sector needs to do much more to incorporate local producers into their supply chains – and thus contribute more to sustainable development and inclusive growth. The majority of negative impacts associated with tourism, such as waste management problems, congestion, and over-consumption of often scarce resources, happen at destination level. It is therefore only fair that positive impacts, such as job creation and income opportunities from supply chain linkages, also happen at local, destination level.

Why it is a win-win situation

This needn’t be seen as part of a broader corporate social responsibility strategy as there are many benefits for businesses looking to support local producers and suppliers. Local produce will usually be fresher, often tastier and having local suppliers able to make more regular deliveries can substantially cut down on both food waste and the food storage space required. There will be a story behind where the food came from, and who grew it, and tourists will be able to gain a culinary sense of place. Despite much anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I remain optimistic that most tourists don’t travel half way around the world to eat the same food as they do back home!

Voting with your wallet: what travellers can do

We, as consumers, have pivotal role to play as we get to vote with our wallets. Many of us will be accustomed to the various fair trade products available in supermarkets back home. Despite these products often starting life on Latin American, Asian or African farms, they are not always so easy to identify when travelling to these continents. So a good starting point for ensuring that money from tourism has a positive local economic impact, is to favour independent and family or community run establishments, the type of place that almost certainly supports other local businesses through their supply chain and employment activities. This is also the type of place where travellers will have the opportunity to try traditional home-cooked food – and experience new local ingredients and flavour combinations.

What larger hospitality businesses need to do

What is also needed, however, is a genuine willingness on behalf of larger hotels and restaurants to want to engage with local suppliers, and freedom from centralised procurement systems for chefs and other food buyers to develop relationships with local suppliers and producers. But this needs to be done in partnership – with the aim of creating mutually beneficial relationships – based on the principals of fair trade. It isn’t about complicated tendering processes that exclude small producers, or payment terms incompatible with the needs of smallholder farmers. It is about giving local farmers a fair price for the great produce they grow, and working in partnership with them to identify and understand each other’s needs and expectations.

Examples of how we support local communities

Fair trade principles, short supply chains, and supporting local and community-based businesses, is key to how we operate as a company. Our tour in rural Argentina is a great example of how we combine community homestays and local gastronomy, whilst also connecting travellers with local agricultural practices, and the land and landscapes they’re visiting. To whet your appetite further, you may also like to read about our local partner, Hervé’s, experience of eating food grown and prepared by host families, with host families, during his trip to the Yungas Region of Argentina.

Our Fair Trade Adventures are also a great example of how we are trying to raise awareness of the importance of fair trade principals, in particular within farming, by bringing travellers into direct contact the growers of popular food staples. In many cases, tourism can also be a valuable diversification strategy for traditional farming or fishing communities, as the case of the Prainha do Canto Verde fishing villages, in Brazil, demonstrates well.

Broadly it is about ensuring that some of the benefits from tourism happen on the ground and contribute to providing sustainable livelihoods for rural communities. Bridging the gap between local producers and the hospitality sector is something we all stand to benefit from…as responsible travellers, as business owners, as consumers, or, at the very least, as members of local communities and lovers of landscapes and tourist destinations that we want to sustain.

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