Factors such as urban sprawl, intensive fossil fuel use, climate change and the globalized agri-food system increase the vulnerability of metropolitan areas with regard to food security. For example, the massive rural exodus to the cities and the subsequent population concentration which intensified during the second half of the twentieth century drove a large number of people away from the production of foodstuffs and has made them dependent on increasingly distant regions to ensure their food supply [1
]. At the same time, large Mediterranean peri-urban farms face an uncertain future because of a loss of profitability, little guarantee of generational handover on small-scale farms [3
], the struggle for water and land, competition in the labor market [4
], and an increase in artificial surface areas at the expense of the traditional coastal and inland landscapes [5
]. Rising temperatures are also altering the capability of agricultural land to continue performing its role, which is intensified by the concentration of economic activities and the intensive occupation of fertile land by transport infrastructure [6
]. More extreme situations, such as the COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019) pandemic and the restrictions on the movement of people and goods in a growing number of countries, are putting major strains on local, regional, and global supply chains, testing the resilience of food systems [8
], revealing the vulnerabilities of short and regional supply chains, and jeopardizing access to certain fresh produce traditionally supplied in some regions (closure and restrictions on farmers’ markets, travel constraints, problems in connecting the different operators in the supply chain, etc.). In short, in the context of local and global challenges of urban sprawl and limited resources, it is crucially important to guarantee access to safe food products, efficient organic production and agri-food logistics to resolve issues regarding food security [9
], and to strengthen every aspect of the sustainability of foods.
If peri-urban agriculture is to be considered as a lever for restoring social and cultural ties between cities and the agricultural space which surrounds them, it needs special recognition to allow the reduction in converging pressures that jeopardize its future. In this context, as is already happening with organic agriculture, there is a resurgence of interest in peri-urban agriculture as a result of its ability to improve the welfare of citizens, including its contribution to food security [10
] and its potential to ensure the regional embedding of the agri-food system [13
]. As highlighted by Cerrada-Serra et al. [14
], these issues are especially significant for Mediterranean cities and regions, which have strong historical ties to their agricultural surroundings. However, beyond recognizing the importance of organic and peri-urban agriculture, it is necessary to increase the amount of research on estimating and planning the agricultural system at different levels [15
]. Similarly, more knowledge is needed to foster farmer cooperation on food logistics, given that this issue in the food chain has a direct effect on the economic viability of small-scale farms, the price of food, and consumer satisfaction [20
In this framework, our research is focused on the hypothesis addressed in recent studies [21
] and sustained by other authors [13
] that short food supply chains (SFSCs) have the potential to improve the viability of peri-urban organic agriculture, promote sustainable farming systems and reduce the vulnerabilities of the local food system on multiple levels. SFSCs can do this through their role as catalysts of initiatives which activate endogenous resources, encouraging the creation of added value in foodstuffs. They also promote regional embeddedness, contributing to local economic development. Moreover, the SFSCs boost the creation of networks, reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment, and improve democratic decision making in regional food systems.
This paper is focused on identifying the barriers that limit the scaling up of the SFSCs, and the opportunities derived from the comparative advantage of peri-urban organic agriculture due to its proximity to urban markets and its capacity to reconcile different dimensions of sustainability. Combined research analysis of primary and secondary sources has been carried out to achieve this objective. The specific purpose of this study is to widen knowledge on small peri-urban producers involved in the SFSCs, identify their main needs regarding scalability, simplifying logistics, reducing their ecological footprint, and increasing visibility in the urban market. In short, this will lead to the discovery of the factors that allow small-scale farms to enjoy increased income. From a wider perspective, the global objective of this paper is to improve the understanding of supply chain organization at a city/region scale to offer solutions which help to reduce food vulnerability in metropolitan regions and restore the synergy between the countryside and cities.
This paper is organized in the following manner: after the introduction, Section 2
identifies the challenges to development faced by the SFSCs using a collaborative approach. Special attention is given to product development, market access, logistics and distribution, identification of success factors and obstacles. Section 3
describes the method used to carry out the research and introduces the territorial context of Andalucía, looking in depth at the urban planning processes and the fragmentation of the land, which have seriously modified the agricultural system of the Vega of Granada in the metropolitan area of Granada and the Mid-Guadalhorce Valley region in the agricultural urban greenbelt of Malaga. Section 4
presents key results obtained from interviews with small organic producers and retail establishments. Section 5
discusses the results of the contributions in Section 2
and the data from Section 4
to orientate appropriate developmental strategies for the SFSCs. Finally, this paper concludes with a critical reflection on key aspects to improve the scaling up of the SFSCs, among which is the need to encourage a change in values for the promotion of a regionalized agri-food system. This highlights the need for a cooperative approach to improve collective knowledge, improve the production of local identity-based foods, increase public–private or urban–rural partnerships, improve logistical bottlenecks and, finally, prioritize sustainable horizontal processes at a local/regional scale.
Metropolitan areas show enormous potential for organic producers involved in food chains operating in peri-urban areas. Investing in smarter logistics can shorten the distance between producers and consumers, stimulating market opportunities for local farmers and giving citizens access to fresh, healthy, and sustainably grown food [55
]. Nevertheless, we have found in this study the difficulty in obtaining up-to-date statistical information that allows knowing the actual situation and evolution of small-scale organic farms that distribute mainly through these channels.
Our research highlights that the majority of the horticultural producers who sell using the SFSCs use different types of sales channels such as farm sales, box schemes, internet sales, direct sales restaurants and shops, farmers’ markets and public procurement. It is important to highlight that diversification in commercialization methods contributes to reducing risk and to better meeting the demands and needs (time and place) of establishments and urban consumers. Nevertheless, despite the wide variety of channels used, the volume of sales continues to be very low, and the time and energy costs are high as a result of the dispersion of the sales points. This must be because, in general, the small producers have insufficient access to distribution infrastructures for the produce processing and preparation for the end consumer. However, this is also because there is a lack of qualified labor available in this field. Another reason is the lack of insufficient public aid for encouraging the creation, reorganization and strengthening of the SFSCs.
After carrying out the literature review and the analysis of the results, we conclude that cooperation and the network of relationships between producers and between multiple stakeholders involved in the bioregional food chain need to be strengthened for the SFSCs to reach their full potential, moving forward in innovation. However, insufficient commercial organization with small shops, restaurants and public food procurement weakens the position of peri-urban agriculture in the regional agri-food system. This also reduces the consumption of produce which has been grown locally and sustainably. Moreover, food policies in most cities and metropolitan regions continue to be scarce and are often nothing more than anecdotal initiatives. Some actions, including public procurement policies, can be powerful drivers in advancing towards sustainable food systems that are currently underused in many regions. Direct sales to small shops (neighborhood supermarkets, specialized shops and greengrocers), to the hospitality sector and to public food procurement can improve the volume of sales, contribute to establishing a stable food chain, increase visibility and trust in organic produce and, finally, improve income. These are all aspects that other direct channels, such as farmers’ markets and consumer groups, do not always achieve, as they have a more limited reach regarding product demand and the number of consumers that they can attract.
Thanks to the data obtained in this research, we can highlight some issues which we consider to be of interest for the improvement of the SFSCs. The main causes identified which affect the performance of the SFSCs in the two regions studied in order of importance were: (i) competition within the organic sector itself; (ii) the low level of interest in local organic produce shown by local consumers; (iii) distribution costs, and (iv) lack of marketing strategies used by the farms themselves. These areas, in agreement with the bibliographical review which has been carried out (Section 2
), must be addressed cooperatively in order to find innovative comprehensive solutions to optimize the SFSCs. This is essential because the investment and management capabilities of the small producers are limited, which affects their chances of becoming more efficient, and secondly, because cooperation allows small producers to respond to demand. This would mean they could provide a stable and varied source of year-round produce to big customers, such as those in the hospitality sector and collective catering. However, this requires greater and better organization between various agents to achieve more efficient management in the production itself and, especially, a certain level of innovation and investment in distribution and logistics to better adapt to local needs.
The research suggests that the benefits provided by the collaborative SFSCs are greater than those from individual actions [56
]; some of these collaborative benefits are: (i) improved product range available to consumers; (ii) resource sharing amongst producers and processors; (iii) maintaining local food chain infrastructure (such as abattoirs); (iv) increased negotiating power for small producers; (v) reduced competition between small producers; and (vi) mutual support to combat isolation and stress. The cooperative focus can meet some of the needs indicated in the interviews with the small shops, which are, among others, improving the ability to guarantee the volume and diversity of year-round produce, optimizing processes so they can be supplied by just one provider, having an effective customer service structure and having a competitive price in the market. These needs will undoubtedly be met when material and human resources are optimized.
As we have shown in recent research, [21
], metropolitan food clusters can be a good opportunity to co-design production systems according to the demands of the local market, carry out long-term joint planning, use shared communication strategies, improve the consumer commitment and open new sales channels, without having to become large-scale producers. The results from Granada and Malaga show that the food hubs are seen as an opportunity to support the skills which some small producers lack, such as improving knowledge on health regulations, business planning, pricing and accountancy, as well as increasing marketing strategies to increase the value of traditional products. However, at the same time, they can boost collaboration with restaurants and public authorities or secure the finance needed for equipment for value-added product innovation. Therefore, these models, which are supported by a management team that can help small producers increase their impact at a local/regional scale by capturing higher added value, produced through product anchoring strategies and transformation. The food hubs are a good alternative to the growing concentration of a limited number of retail companies.
Another of the major obstacles identified in the two regions studied is the insufficient demand for the weak consumer commitment to local organic produce. Therefore, several studies have looked into consumer preferences and purchasing behaviors regarding organic and local consumption. For example, research carried out by Watss et al. [56
] on consumer engagement with alternative food networks showed that respondents wanted to support the local economy by shopping with small local retailers and buying local food but, at the same time, they value supermarkets for their convenience and wider range of products and prices. The study suggested that their tendency to favor conventional food networks seemed to be based on reliance, whereas their use of SFSCs tended to be based on trust. [56
]. Other studies show that a large number of consumers are not willing to pay extra for organic produce [57
]. Therefore, this is one of the major challenges which must be overcome by increasing education and awareness of local and organic produce and food systems with support from public administrational bodies. Marketing strategies must be improved by the sector itself through increasing the visibility of local, organic attributes. Most of the small producers interviewed in the two regions studied make limited use of social media and internet sales, either because they do not have the required communication skills or due to a lack of time and resources, and this issue has to be tackled.
E-commerce can complement other sales channels and can improve local produce visibility, which is going to be essential after the changes caused by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. In this sense, collaborative SFSCs, such as food hubs, can support producers by promoting technological innovation and supporting the processes and the products they offer to make it more competitive in the local market, while satisfying the demands of a growing number of environmentally aware consumers. The organic management developed by small producers and their commitment to social, environmental and economic values at the local scale can be used as a differentiation strategy in opposition to industrial agriculture. Similarly, we can find the creation of collective regionalized brands that show the benefits generated by local organic agriculture in the conservation of biodiversity and the supply of ecosystemic services in general, as well as providing healthy food. An advantage of developing a collective brand is that products can retain their identity when sold through a variety of channels, such as e-commerce and retail outlets [58
At the same time, the creation of governance structures and regionalized networks which are dependent on endogenous resources and the specific characteristics of the regions is an extremely important driver for promoting collective learning processes and information exchanges. There is a need for a new pact between policies and organized civil society (farmers’ cooperatives, food activists, community-based organizations, NGOs and researchers) involved in the planning and innovation around the SFSCs.
Special attention is given to the implementation of cooperative business models as a way in which collective efficiency can be increased and social and economic innovation can be encouraged [34
]. Increasing the ability of small producers to generate knowledge to adapt to the new demands of the urban market is an essential factor for improving their viability and favoring local development. This should not only be in terms of economic growth, but also from a perspective focused on constructing a new niche market by selling high-quality organic products and re-valuing local production with a low environmental impact. Another option for strengthening the visibility of the small organic producers who grow produce in the metropolitan belts is the use of internet-based solutions (apps, websites, social media, online shops, etc.), which allow new market opportunities to be stimulated.
Nonetheless, innovation around production differentiation strategies and technical solutions to improve SFSCs and local productions is not enough, all of this needs to occur alongside the development and design of appropriate systems of regulation and information, educational campaigns, and public support [59
]. In order to meet these objectives, it is necessary to widen research focused on knowledge on the most suitable policies to cope with the challenge to secure urban food provisioning, for example, by removing barriers for public procurement of local and organic foodstuffs or by orienting research on how to reduce vulnerability to future supply problems triggered by new pandemics. From a systemic perspective, heritage-based solutions linked to landscape patrimony to increase the added value of local food production is another interesting line of research.
A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems is more urgent than ever [8
]. As identified in the research, there are three key domains involved in building agri-food system resilience, which is more embedded in metropolitan contexts and capable of ensuring access to healthy, local fresh food. These include supporting and improving the scalability of collaborative SFSCs, ensuring the social and economic viability of organic peri-urban agriculture and, finally, facilitating access to land and food producing resources in urban bioregions. Furthermore, different strategies should be put in place to gradually shift away from trade-oriented agricultural policies that disadvantage small-scale producers or favor unsustainable agricultural practices [8
]. Scaling up the volume of sales means that small organic producers must adapt to new forms of consumption, which is shown by the growing trend to source food using the internet, for which they must incorporate digital platforms as an essential element of their operation [60
A range of actions have been identified to improve the optimization of cooperative farm business. Some of them include cooperative business innovation processes to increase the efficiency in the distribution, logistics, and use of resources and services to meet food safety regulations, while at the same time favoring collective knowledge and increasing communication strategies to value organic and local production as suitable actions. All these recommendations have shown limited efficiency, unless they are addressed as part of a set of cooperative strategies at various levels among the different agents of the food chain. All these aspects are more urgent than ever and, moreover, when food safety is being affected (accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis). Consumers increasingly understand the need for food which generates local revenue that is healthier, which reduces its impact and guarantees territorial supply in times of increasing uncertainty. However, accepting collective responsibility is paramount, as it is unlikely that any single actor can achieve even modest steps towards sustainability, while local policy action has the power to provide potential seeds of transformative change [59
In order to face the great challenge which the cities and the metropolitan regions face in the improvement of food security [61
], together with associated issues such as urban sprawl, demographic concentration in urban areas, loss of biodiversity, climate change and reduction in traditional small-scale farms and their identifying features requires the application of a system-based approach. This requires engaging urban planning to ensure spaces for peri-urban arable lands along with food planning policies. It also means developing ad-hoc policies for the activation of agricultural spaces and to guarantee the running of food supply (using structural and commercial approaches), the conservation and activation of the ecosystemic services, and the increase in the quality and quantity of these in both the sector itself and its companies [62
Increasing knowledge on the mechanisms which allow new farmers to improve their professional training and strengthen their business and social media skills is indispensable [63
]. As stated by Matarán [64
], the challenge of implementing major governance in agri-food planning policies must not be forgotten either. Nor, according to Mata [65
], should we forget the challenge of implementing agri-food planning policies that promote the SFSCs and the fostering of agricultural landscapes at a local/regional scale with the objective of achieving increasingly embedded food systems. Finally, active involvement of policy makers is required in concert with civil society to consolidate the reconnection between the city and the countryside, between food and territories, ties that are the foundation for the future preservation of peri-urban agriculture and its cultural landscapes.