Buying local: good or bad? It's not as simple as you may think
There is such comfort in categorical imperatives. This xyz thing is good. This abc thing is bad. Locally sourced food is good. Airfreighting is bad… The list goes on and on.
As we sat down to research all the wonderful things we could say about locally sourced food, we were puzzled. Our tidy understanding of the marvellous world of locally-sourced bliss crashed. Things are never quite black and white.
While we collectively strive to do the right things for the right reasons, at times we can find ourselves swept into misconceptions or partial truths…and end up doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Cast the first stone he who is without sin. At BOL, we try to think in holistic terms by framing sustainability around both people and the planet, but what we’ve found is that there are endless compromises along the way.
Let’s look at a concept that is far more complex than we might think: locally-sourced foods. Local foods are sold in proximity to where they are grown. The “buy local” movement gained momentum in 2005, when Jessica Prentice coined the term “locavore” to promote local eating for World Environment Day. The word was chosen as the new word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2007.
Problem number one: There is no universal definition for the term. Was that lovely locally-sourced courgette you bought at the supermarket grown in your region…maybe county…perhaps country?
There are many reasons to love locally-sourced foods. However, at times the arguments presented in favour of local mask some broader underlying facts and figures. Let’s look at a few of the claims. For the sake of simplicity, we will group the two points of view as proponents and opponents of locally sourced, although this dichotomy is only conceptual.
Proponents claim: Locally sourced food helps create community
If you buy locally-sourced food you are probably doing so at your local farmers market. This leads to the creation of a network of local people who care about the area and establish a sense of community, a place of meeting and exchange. There is also an increased chance of learning about the ingredients when in contact with the makers and farmers, so an important educational piece is established in empowering the consumer.
Opponents claim: The proponents claim is entirely fair
Proponents claim: Locally sourced food supports the local economy
If a consumer is buying locally, they are likely supporting the small independent businesses that are native to the area and that rely on that local network for economic security. If this financial component is satisfied there is more money circulating in the community, helping create local jobs.
Opponents claim: This is true, but we need to think about whether we really want to favour the local economy over the global economy
Does a local economy matter more than a global economy? The answer will differ from person to person. There is a huge economic benefit we can afford communities around the world by purchasing their food rather than our own. Organizations like DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development) is always seeking opportunities to create sustainable income sources for communities in need around the globe. Take green beans, for example. Green bean farming provides livelihood for farmers and their families in Kenya. DFID set up a challenge fund in 2010 to reduce poverty in Africa by improving the income of the rural poor. Through their program a grant of £200,000 was awarded to Waitrose to encourage them to stock Kenyan beans. This regular stream of purchasing helped provide the local community with the income they needed. Of course, not every foreign food has such an honourable story, but favouring local is an economic choice that does have impact on other communities globally.
Proponents claim: Locally sourced food is free of nasties + tastes better
Given that the food hasn’t travelled far it is likely to be fresh. Locally-sourced food is most likely seasonal and organic. This results in the food being nutritionally denser and better tasting. Given that the food is produced on small farms it is less likely that pesticides, fertilisers and GMOs have been used in its production.
Opponents say: Let’s not conflate local foods with organic foods
While we all like to think that our local farmer or producer is doing everything as “cleanly” as possible, it is simply incorrect to assume that they are doing so. There is no guarantee that locally produced foods will not have been exposed to the same level of chemical treatment of their industrial-scale global counterpart. This being true, it follows that the foods produced locally aren’t necessarily healthier.
Proponents claim: Locally sourced food is more sustainable
Food that is sourced locally is more environmentally friendly. There are several advantages to local. Firstly, it helps preserve the green farmland around urban centres, improving air quality and attracting biodiversity. Secondly, and most importantly, sourcing locally reduces the carbon emissions associated with the transport of food from the place of production to the place where it is sold. Carbon miles or “food miles” are the miles accumulated during food transportation, which burns fossil fuels and causes large carbon emissions. Diminished food miles reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, bettering air quality and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Opponents claim: The “food miles” framework has fostered misconceptions about what constitutes an environmentally friendly food system by focusing in on one piece of the pie and missing the full picture
While it is (of course) true that importing food will result in more “food miles”, the energy use and emissions per unit of food produced on a large-scale is often far more efficient. This can be due to several factors, such as the energy needed to produce the food at source. Is the food produced open-air or does it require a greenhouse, which is far less efficient in energy use? DEFRA (the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) published a comparison in greenhouse gas emitted between UK and Spanish tomatoes sold in the UK that factored in both the production and delivery by land. The study found that UK tomato production emitted 2,394 kg of CO2 per ton, whereas their Spanish counterpart emitted just 630 kg per ton.
What’s more, overall supply-chain transportation (i.e. food miles) contribute only an estimated 5-6 percent of all carbon emissions, whereas 48% of all food miles for UK-consumed food derive from consumers driving the food home from the market (gasp!).
Take the green bean story: A UK consumer who drives 6 miles to buy Kenyan green beans emits more carbon dioxide per bean than does flying the vegetables from Kenya to the U.K. Of course, this irony doesn't hold true for everything we source from abroad, but it's an interesting way of looking at the overall picture. Airfreighting ultimately only contributes to 1% of all food miles. In short, it would probably be far more environmentally friendly to airfreight tomatoes to the UK than it would be to drive to the local farmers market and purchase British-sourced greenhouse tomatoes.
Overall, when we think about greenhouse gas emissions we should be more focused on food production efficiency and than we should be about food miles.
With all this in mind, what to do and what to think? In short, there is no black or white answer as to whether locally-sourced is always the answer. It will ultimately come down to each one of us to evaluate. At BOL, we always try to evaluate where we are sourcing from, and do try to source locally as much as possible to support UK farmers. We also have a no-airfreighting policy to make sure we are consciously thinking of where our ingredients are coming from and how much we know about where they are produced. However, here are some questions to keep in mind when you purchase locally-sourced:
- Where (exactly) is the food produced?
- How was it transported here?
- Is it produced in greenhouses or open air?
If you have any insights you’d like to share on the topic, please do tweet us @BOLFoods. We love some good food for thought…and we’ll be chewing on this one for a while.