Many people accept the notion that buying local food cuts down on ‘food miles’, and reduces the ‘carbon footprint’ making the environment more sustainable, but this may not be the case!
Although there is no legal definition for ‘local food’, a common definition is ‘food that is produced within 30 miles of where it is sold’ 1, and others say up to 100 miles of where it is sold.
It is easy to understand that buying local food will reduce food miles (the distance between the place where food is grown or made, and the place where it is eaten, 2). What is not so clear is, if reducing those miles also reduces your carbon footprint.
With growing concern over climate change, environmental impacts and food security, there has been an urgency to reduce our ‘Carbon Footprint’ which refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to directly and indirectly support human activities, usually expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). 3
“Food’s Carbon Footprint or ‘foodprint’ is the greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing of the food you eat”. 4
The focus on food miles has prompted many environmental advocates and retailers to urge a ‘localisation’ of global food supply, though many have questioned this because of practices in different regions, or the increase storage need to buy locally throughout all seasons. 5
Food miles contribute to only a tiny portion of carbon emissions while a whopping 83% of CO2 emissions comes from food production, which mainly consists of growing and storing food. 6
It would seem the environmental impact of food emissions weighs heavily on how food is produced, not how it is transported.
Let’s take a concrete example, Kenyan Green Beans.
You may assume it would be best to buy green beans grown in the UK. It only makes sense, however, Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of Bangor University, an expert in African agriculture states that beans in Kenya are grown using manual labour, nothing mechanised, they don’t use tractors, they use cow much as fertiliser, and they have low-tech irrigation systems in Kenya. When you take into consideration the whole cycle of food production and food miles, it is evident that green beans from Kenya could actually account for the emission of less carbon dioxide than British beans. Why? Because British Green beans are grown in fields on which oil based fertilisers have been sprayed and which are ploughed by tractors that burn diesel. 7
Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK. Gareth Thomas, DFID 7
The environmental impact of food also depends on how it is grown. A study found it was better, from a greenhouse-gas perspective for the Swedish to buy Spanish tomatoes because the Spanish potatoes were grown in open fields and the local ones were grown in fossil-fuel-heated greenhouses. 8
The results of a study in the US show that for the average American household, “buying local” could achieve, at maximum, around a 4-5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the production of food. Alternatively ‘Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers’. 9
Many Benefits to Local Food
By now, you must think I am totally against buying local food, but that is not the case. There are many benefits to buying local food including reducing the carbon footprint, but to the extent it does is not as simple as calculating food miles. Most of us are not experts and the food system should not be this complex, but unfortunately it is. That’s why people like to keep it simple and say ‘buy local, reduce food miles’. By buying local food there are environmental benefits of shorter supply chains if it reduces food waste along the food chain. 10
Buying local food could also improve food security ‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’. 11 The Hawaiian government’s strategy of increasing food security and food self-sufficiency sets to increase locally grown food. Hawaii imports 85% of their food and estimates that by replacing just 10% of the food that is imported would amount to $311 million dollars. 12
Eating fresh fruit and vegetables usually tastes better than being shipped from another country where it comes to ripen in the UK. I have been spoiled from living in Uganda and will never again eat a pineapple in the UK. The sweetness and fresh taste of the pineapple where it is grown does not compare.
Personally, buying local food always makes me feel good, supporting local farmers, businesses and my community. Some people may even develop a relationship with the farmer so you can find out how he is rearing his animals or planting his vegetables, and whether he is using pesticides or not. Many people have their own gardens growing food which gives great pride. It is also important to remember that not every local shop sells local produce and many sell imported produce. Sometimes we think a shop is considered local because it is not a big supermarket. And remember, local food is not always organic food if that’s what you are concerned about! Like, I said – the food system is complex.
So, back to the initial question: Does eating local food and reducing ‘food miles’ really make a difference to the environment? Yes, it does, but not to the extent you have been told it does. Eating local food is not the ONLY answer, but it is a small contribution that you can make to reduce your carbon footprint out of many, like eating less meat! See my blog To eat meat or not to eat meat, that is the question.