Is The Local Diet All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

local food

I am writing this post as part of the Change the Week Wednesday challenge for the week beginning August 29th but I hope my research and opinions will remain evergreen for much longer as the topic of buying locally produced food is one that crops up (pun intended!) on a regular basis.

So first of all I’ll just recap the challenge for your reference in case you are not a regular reader of the CTWW blog posts:

 

This week share ideas on eating locally during the winter months. While “eating locally” may include meats, dairy, etc., for the purposes of this challenge we’re primarily talking about plant-based foods.

And then…

Come up with a plan, for your household, to eat locally throughout the year. This might include preserving produce which is currently available in your area, talking to farmers to see if they offer (or would be willing to offer) items during the winter, or growing a winter garden of your own.

My Views On The Challenge Itself

I’m not so keen on focusing on the locality of our food as much as the carbon footprint itself but I can see, after a bit of research, that the benefits of a local diet go beyond just the greenhouse gas emissions.

Maybe the topic of foods’ total carbon footprint can form the basis of a future CTWW challenge because the environmental impact of meat over vegetables is, in most circumstances, so much greater that we are almost missing the point here.

Indeed, I have posted previously about the impact of the livestock industry on the environment and the figures are quite terrifying.

Nonetheless, I’ll look a little deeper at the arguments surrounding local food and ‘locavore’ diets.

How Local Does Local Need To Be?

Defining local food is not straightforward and it depends whereabouts you live. In the UK, the National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association (FARMA) define local as ideally within 30 miles of production although coastal areas (50 miles) and major city centres (100 miles) get a bit of leeway.

In the United States, however, 30 miles is almost nothing and even a 100 mile limit could well constrain choice and selection a great deal so what is fair here? Some crops are so intensively grown in certain states that if you wanted to only buy local, you might find you suffer a very boring diet.

For myself, living as central as one might hope to get in London, I will take the 100 mile approach while trying to source some items from within 30 miles where possible. This gives me a food map like this:

food miles radius

If you would like to work out your own map like this then you can do by visiting http://www.freemaptools.com/radius-around-point.htm

So, 100 miles gives me all of South East England and some of the midlands too. I already know about the London Farmers Market website which is great for working out where and when your nearest market is but I’ll also be looking more closely at foods I buy from the supermarkets to try and ensure their locality too.

Is Local Really Local?

Another problem we face when trying to define local food is that processing can happen in completely different locations to the growing or rearing of the raw materials. So it is quite possible that your ‘local’ vegetables have been grown in a completely different part of the country.

Lucy Siegle writes on the Guardian:

It might be true that a meat product has been finished in the West Country even if the animal was born and bred hundreds of miles away.

[…]the chair of the Soil Association, Patrick Holden, fell out with Sainsbury’s over his carrots, which were grown and sold in Wales as local produce despite being measured and sorted via a centralised distribution point in East Anglia.

FARMA reference a study saying it is possible to find misleading labels including:

“Welsh lamb”, which actually came from New Zealand, “Somerset butter” from Scotland and “Devon ham” from Denmark.

This goes to show how hard it can be to accurately work out the source of your food.

Benefits Of Locally Produced Food

There are some sizeable benefits to having farmers and food producers providing for local people and local markets. These include:

Economic Benefits

Money that is spent on food produced locally stays within the local economy. A successful local farm employs local people who in turn spend their wages on local services. Small farms also employ more people per acre than larger farms according to a number of studies including this one by the ISEC that states:

In the UK, farms under 100 acres provide five times more jobs per acre than those over 500 acres.

A small local farm is also more likely to employ the services of other local businesses.

A study by the New Economics Foundation revealed the startling fact that for every £10 spent on food from local businesses £25 is generated for the local economy.

Variety Benefits

As mentioned earlier, if you try eating local in some parts of the world, you will end up with a very repetitive diet but when farms and processors are setup specifically to supply local shops and markets, they will often diversify and grow different crops and crop varieties that you’d never get on the supermarket shelves.

I recently went to one of my local farmers’ markets in Marylebone and bought some potatoes that I had never heard of before. They had a rather unsettling blue coloured flesh but they tasted great and were just one of about 15 varieties on offer that day of all shapes and sizes.

Taste & Nutritional Benefits

Fresher foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, will taste better than those that have been picked and transported long distances in refrigerated lorries.

Fruits and vegetables start to lose their nutritional benefit as soon as they are harvested so a shorter supply chain also means less of that goodness is lost before consumption.

Wildlife Benefits

Planting a variety of different crops on a farm reduces the problems associated with monocropping and can reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizer which actually helps bring costs down for the farmer.

Biodiversity in animal and insect life rises as different crops are grown in close proximity and overall yields can benefit from this mixed approach.

Packing Benefits

If you go to a farmers’ market or local co-op instead of your regular supermarket, you will find a lot less packing is involved in the selling process. Because produce reaches the shelves quicker, there is less need for the plastic wrappers that are designed to keep things fresh during transportation.

You can simply take your own re-usable containers to put things in and prevent all that extra waste either going to landfill or needing to be recycled.

The Pragmatic View On Local Food

I won’t paint local food as a completely rosy picture however; there are arguments to the contrary and we have to look at these too if we are to gain a balanced view.

Efficiency Is The Name Of The Game

We have to accept the fact that the population of this planet is growing at an alarming rate and with food shortages already a major problem in parts of the world, we are facing a monumental challenge to grow enough food.

Therefore we must not assume that the best way to feed everybody is to grow all food locally. We need to look at the most efficient and effective ways to grow food and get it to the general population.

This means that while large scale farms have their problems, we must not demonise them simply for being big or for growing a handful of major crops. After all, just a few types of grain account for a huge proportion of the calorific intake of the human race either directly or indirectly as feed crops for livestock. This means that large, single crop farms are almost inevitable.

Instead, we need to weed out inefficient farms of all sizes and address the issues on these farms to maximise crop yields across the world.

Sometimes, small farms that try and grow too large a variety of produce to supply their local towns are simply inefficient in their use of land and resources. This is especially the case if they try to grow crops that are not suited to their climate or soil type. In these situations, a balance must be reached between local food and efficient use of resources.

Food Miles Are Not Always Straightforward

I have written about food miles before and came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t always be worried if foods travel large distances as this does not automatically indicate a larger carbon footprint.

You might be concerned, for example, that you’ll have to give up bananas as they are grown thousands of miles away in warmer climates but with a carbon footprint of just 80g each (figures for bananas shipped to the UK, other parts of the world would vary), bananas provide a good number of calories and plenty of minerals and vitamins. So why would you cut them out of your diet simply to be a strict locavore? It makes no sense.

Even tomatoes, grown locally in summer have around the same carbon footprint as the humble banana and the same goes for most thick skinned fruits and vegetables that can be shipped unrefrigerated thanks to their natural protection.

Another thing to consider with food miles is the efficiency of the transportation being used. Driving to a farmers’ market that is twice as far away as your local supermarket might actually wipe out the environmental benefits you seek to gain by eating locally produced foods. This is because one lorry carrying tonnes of goods to a supermarket that then reduces the number of car miles driven by shoppers might actually be a better approach. Obviously a farm shop/market within a population centre is the ideal scenario.

Supermarkets Aren’t Always Evil

Sure the big bad supermarkets have a reputation for squeezing the margins of their suppliers to get the cheapest produce (like the whole debacle with milk right now), but they do have some benefits.

Because of their incessant efficiency drives, supermarket distribution channels work very effectively at times. Just the other day I was watching a show on TV that detailed the process by which lettuces reach supermarket shelves just hours after harvesting – little slower than a local farm might achieve.

It is probably a bit different in other parts of the world, particularly countries where the population is more spread out like the US where hours become days because of the distances being dealt with.

Supermarkets Are Sometimes Evil

Despite their efficient distribution systems, supermarkets inevitably refuse to buy crops that are not in demand. This means that some farmers are left with crops that they have to feed to livestock, sell at a lower price or simply leave to compost in the fields.

If a potato is the wrong shape, it gets rejected. If the weather changes and the public no longer want salad vegetables, the supermarket won’t buy them from farmers.

This approach means that food that has been grown for human consumption ends up being wasted.

Buying local may prevent much of this waste as you have to take what is available rather than be so choosey.

Developing Countries Rely Heavily On Crop Exports

You may think that only good will come of buying locally produced food but by refusing to buy imported crops we might actually be preventing the economic development of poorer countries.

Take the humble banana once again – the industry is one of the largest crop based industries in the world and it employs many millions of people in a large number of countries. To stop eating bananas would be to potentially put a banana worker out of a job.

Grow Your Own

The most local that your food can get is the food that grows in your own garden, on your own balcony or on your own allotment and this would cut almost all emissions and packaging out of the equation.

Growing your own food in your own backyard has another benefit in that it reduces the need for agricultural land which many see as a growing problem with a rising population to feed. Projects such as rooftop gardens and city smallholdings can further help the land situation.

Different Countries May Need Different Approaches

This article focuses primarily on the UK side of things but because we are a relatively small island nation the arguments I’ve put across might not always hold true. As I have already alluded to, the US system is quite a lot different with a reported farm to fork distance of 1500 – 2500 miles which means that the benefits of eating local might be bigger depending on the mode of transport used to ship the foods across the country.

What Is Green Steve Going To Do?

Like I said at the start of this article, I think what you eat is far more important than where it comes from, but seeing as how little things can add up when everyone does them, I will try my best to check the origin of as many foods as I can when I next go shopping and avoid those that come from outside of a 100 mile radius.

I’ll also ensure that I eat in season and avoid another asparagus disaster like I had in May and I’ll make better use of the weekly farmers’ markets that are just about within walking distance of my home.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts so drop me a comment below and we’ll discuss things further.

Steve (156 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

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