Is local food environmentally costly?

Many consumers feel that they should be buying “local food” to help combat climate change – but could “local food” actually result in more carbon emissions than food distributed through conventional supply chains? David Oglethorpe raises this possibility along with some other surprising ideas in a paper in CAB Reviews.

 

Oglethorpe, of the Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University points out that the economies of scale of major production networks do actually result in some environmental benefits. A study of sausages showed that using HGVs in efficient distribution chains resulted in a much lower carbon footprint per sausage than resulted from the many smaller journeys in smaller vehicles that were typical of local food production.

In attempting to be more “green”, many consumers feel that they should not buy food that is highly packaged. But Oglethorpe says that there is much higher food waste with food that is low on packaging. And the emissions associated with food decay, particularly methane, are much more significant than for packaging materials. So it might make more environmental sense to use more packaging. 

Some producers who supply local food also use more environmentally friendly farming or production techniques. However, this is not always the case, and studies suggest that while the association may be strong in the consumer’s mind, in reality it may be weak. There are also examples where local production is more resource-consuming than production in a geographical area more suited to a particular type of farming.  For example, there is some evidence that New Zealand lamb imported to the UK has a smaller environmental impact than that produced in the UK, despite the obvious transport-related emissions.

However, local food may have other benefits. It can provide an important boost to the local economy, offering employment, and attracting tourism, local festivals and the “vibrancy” of an area. The fact that consumers can meet face-to-face with producers may have positive effects on the local community. Some local foods are of better quality – e.g. “local” meat products tend to have higher meat content than typical mass distribution equivalents. However, some that target an “indulgent” consumer have high sugar or fat content, and thus could have negative health impacts.

 

So consumers should not be assumers that local is always best. However, there is currently no agreement on what “local” means, and the hidden environmental costs are far from obvious. As with many environmental analysis, research is only beginning to scratch the surface, and agreeing what is fair to count within the cost is a controversial business.

 

The paper, Food miles – the economic, environmental and social significance of the focus on local food by David Oglethorpe appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2009, 4, No. 072, 11 pp.

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