Kenyan green beans ready for export (source)

Did you know that green beans flown in from Kenya, have a lower carbon footprint than UK grown beans? [1]

Food miles’ and the concept of ‘locality’ have increasingly occupied the conscious of the ethical eater. These consumers, fashionably known as “locavores” support local produce under the banner of sustainability and in efforts to reduce emission from transport. However, recent research puts food miles under scrutiny and there is a growing body of evidence to support that going local- means going less sustainable. [1][2][3]

What constitutes local food?

The concept of ‘food miles’ made its debut in 1994, when it was used in a report by Sustain (an alliance for better food and farmer) aiming to increase consumer-product connectivity.[4] However, to date, the term’local’ bears no formal definition and is often stretched to fit any purpose. Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon in their book, feel that a 100-mile boundary is sufficient to include an area that extends beyond the city but small enough to feel local.[2] Others attribute local food as being within the same city, county or country. The definition also varies with context, for example, how fair is it to use a standardised boundary for countries of variable sizes or regions with large areas of non-arable land? The lack of what constitutes as ‘local’, makes it a difficult principal to universalise.[2]

Is eating local more sustainable?

I’ll start by discussing environmental sustainability. Food miles have been criticised for narrowly focusing on one aspect of agricultural emissions, that only account for 11% of the total emission produced. When considering the environmental impact of the food you eat, it’s important to consider the life cycle analysis (LCA). This measures the ‘greenhouse’ gas production at each stage of the ‘life’ of the food product. Evaluating emissions at each stage provides a more rational guide to which areas of production should be targeted. Studies show that 83% of the total emissions are released before the food leaves the farm. This high percentage at the farm level is attributed to the transport and production of fossil-fuel rich fertilisers and pesticides, as well as, imported animal feed. The process of packaging and wholesaling adds to further emissions down the chain. In the UK we waste 8.3 tonnes of food per year, a reduction by one tonne could save 3.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.[4] The pie chart below shows the breakdown of which phases of food production (in the USA) produce the most emissions.[3]


Scientists estimate, that even if we managed to reduce food miles to the impractical figure of zero, total CO2 emissions would only reduce by 5%, which indicates that our focus should be on upstream practices. In addition to changes in farming practice, this includes changing eating habits to reduce our meat consumption, which is globally responsible for 14% of greenhouse gases.[4] Modifying food preparation practices also help. For example, microwaving a pie instead of baking it in the oven reduces the carbon footprint of the product from 9% to 2% during this stage of the pie’s lifecycle.[3][4]

When considering LCA of food produced abroad we get a very different picture. Due to different farming practices, the emissions produced upstream are substantially less and even with increased emissions produced during travel, total emissions are less. A tonne of loose tomatoes produced in the UK are 3 times more likely to contribute to climate change than of the Spanish equivalent. The warm and sunny environment of Spain allows tomatoes to be grown in semi-protected systems or open air. Whereas, reproducing the same conditions locally involves the use of fossil-fuelled heated greenhouse gases.[2] The graph below compares the emissions produced from growing tomatoes in various European countries.


The same pattern is seen for meat production. A report in 2006 showed that lambs grown in New Zealand and then cruised 11,000 miles across the sea had a smaller carbon footprint than locally raised lambs. The use of renewable hydroelectric power is partly responsible, as well as, feeding livestock on grass. In the UK animal feed is produced from imported soy. Soy grows in the topics and it’s over cultivation leads to deforestation- a  major contributor to climate change.[4][5]

In the case of the developing world, fuel powered technology such as irrigation systems and tractors, are often substituted with manual labour reducing emissions. In all these cases, the tradeoff between ‘food miles’ and more sustainable farming practices results in lower total emissions.[4][5]

Sustainability in the broader sense

Making a sustainable choice isn’t purely about reducing our carbon foot, but it’s about recognising the impact our choices have on society and sustainable development. By focusing purely on one aspect of sustainability we run the risk of disconnecting ourselves from the producers that depend on us for their livelihoods. In many developing countries, the lack of employment prospects means export horticulture offers livelihoods and development opportunities. Kenya is a prime example, where more than 1 million livelihood opportunities have been created in export farming and a further 3 million through indirect employment. Green bean farming has lifted individuals out of rural poverty and now many farmers are able to afford school fees. Despite only 5% of the total produce being exported, the income earnt is equivalent to that sold locally. This promotes Kenyan economy as residents can be self-sufficient and rely on trade, not aid.[4][6]

We’ve established that exporting food doesn’t compromise environmental sustainability and may actually promote sustainability in the broader sense, by incorporating the social and economic dimensions. The latter is particularly relevant, as developing countries rely heavily on agriculture to develop their economies and combat poverty.[4][6]

The environmental impact of the food we eat starts with production at the farm and ends with how much waste we produce. What we eat, how it’s farmed, cooked and disposed of all count. With food miles accounting for a minor fraction of the total emissions, there are numerous opportunities to make changes at each stage of the lifecycle, with the potential to achieve a greater environmental impact.[4][6][7]