The following is an adaptation of an assignment that I had written in the Fall of 2013 for a graduate-level Ecological Economics course at Dalhousie University. I offer it as food for thought (pardon the pun). People are welcome to use the information in it as long as they give credit where credit is due, and don't plagiarize.
For the record, I do try to buy local myself. It’s a great place to start for us as consumers who want to become more aware of the environmental impacts of our purchases – but then we look beyond to the wider picture.
The “Buy Local” food movement draws consumer attention to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food transport. It also elicits support for local food producers, on the assumption that they make a lighter environmental impact with regard to transport of products to consumers than producers located farther away (Desrochers & Shimizu, 2008). However, there are some flaws in the theory that “local is better”, because the transportation segment of a product’s complete life cycle – from natural resource harvesting through processing, packaging, distribution, consumption and waste – represents only a small portion of its total environmental impact (Ibid.). The “food miles” concept is an attractive marketing tool for its simplicity, but we need to move beyond it to embrace a wider vision of sustainability if we are truly to support food production systems that carry a lighter footprint. We need to do this in a manner that can be easily understood and implemented by the average consumer – which is no small task for environmental educators and food retailers and wholesalers, many of whom have already invested considerable energy in marketing the local food concept.
Proponents of the local food movement cite many advantages to buying local. These include enhanced freshness, greater nutritive value, reduced fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport, support for the local economy, adherence to environmental and quality standards, avoidance of large and powerful food industry players, avoidance of genetically modified foods, and enhanced consumer connectedness to the land, to farmers, and to the community that leads to greater concern for the well-being of all. Local food security is perceived as improved, because more parameters in the system are known and familiar (Desrochers & Shimizu, 2008; EatLocalGrown.com, 2013).
Certainly, for efficiency some foodstuffs must be imported from the climatic zones to which they are suited. Yet, when a particular item is both produced locally and also imported, many local producers cannot compete in price with more distant producers who may benefit from cheaper labour and lower environmental standards (Scott & MacLeod, 2010).
“Buying local” is also easy to market in attractive ways. By appealing to local pride-of-place and community, one can create simple but compelling messages to carry forth into consumer action, of the type that are suggested by such environmental education systems as Community-Based Social Marketing (McKenzie-Mohr, 2011). If food miles were indeed a complete measure of sustainability, they would be well-placed to integrate into social consciousness – and therein lies much of their appeal.
However, Desrochers and Shimizu (2008) critique the food miles concept as an overly simplistic fad that fails to adequately describe relative product sustainability. One of their key arguments was that only 11% of GHG emissions from food production originated with the transportation segment in the United States, whereas a whopping 83% came from food production. The transportation segment accounted for by food miles – from producer to retailer – was responsible for only 4% of total GHGs. In the UK, it was found that the largest GHG emitters from transport alone were trucks (31%) and light vehicles (48%) – the latter responsible for taking the foodstuffs home from the point of sale and thus beyond the food miles calculation. Efficient bulk transport by sea and rail was associated with low emission rates per unit, and air transport represented only 1% of food miles (Ibid.).
Therefore, if transportation impacts do not carry as much meaning as originally thought, it is extremely important to look at production to work out a more truthful picture of sustainability. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it may make more environmental sense to actually buy those fresh apples imported from New Zealand when local apples are off-season in the northern hemisphere, simply because the methods used to store apples in the off-season to prevent oxidation are quite energy-intensive (Ibid.) – but one has to work out the arithmetic for one’s particular locale and methods, which is tricky to do while standing in the grocery aisle.
In our enthusiasm to support our local economy, we must also always be careful to not descend into xenophobia. The social and economic impacts of a valuable food industry are no less meaningful if they take place in our home province or on another continent, where other people may also struggle to make ends meet and feed their families just as we do. We may more immediately relate to our own community members, but in this modern, connected information age there is no excuse to not validate the condition of “the other” simply because they are farther away.
Having said this, there are many great points worth salvaging from the food miles concept. “Pride-of-place” is an important component of valuing and exercising good stewardship over the environment in general (Orr, 1994). If food security issues have increased public valuation of local natural capital related to food production, and if consumers are motivated to become involved in their own food security, then the food miles concept has nudged us closer to sustainability, even accounting for undesirable detours. If it also helps spur local producers to examine their own practices to meet a general consumer demand for more sustainable food systems, via (for example) the Nova Scotia Environmental Farm Plan (NS Federation of Agriculture, 2013), then this can be regarded as positive as well.
I contend that product eco-labelling systems that account for not just transport but the entire complex product life cycle can and should be developed for as many different types of foodstuffs as possible. This would empower the consumer to make swift, easy, and environmentally effective choices with a more accurate overall assessment than what the simplistic food miles model offers. This is already starting to become mainstream for some products. For example, one sees responsible aquaculture and fishing labels from such NGO/industry partnerships as the Marine Stewardship Alliance, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, and others (Pelletier & Tyedmers, 2008). There is always room for improvement in such labelling systems, including the incorporation of ecological and socioeconomic components (Ibid.). The establishment of parameters for similar labelling of other types of foodstuffs continues to be very complex indeed. Nonetheless, we need to have these important conversations to take a hard look at what practices truly are more sustainable and therefore should be supported where possible.
Desrochers, P., Shimizu, H. (2008).Yes, we have no bananas: A critique of the "food miles" perspective. Fairfax, VA: Mercatus Center, George Mason University.
EatLocalGrown.com (2013, October 22). Our food crisis began way before Monsanto [Twitter social media message]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/eatLocalGrown/status/392840112133775361/photo/1
Ford, J.S., N.L. Pelletier, F. Ziegler, A.J. Scholz, P.H. Tyedmers, U. Sonesson, S.A. Kruse, and H. Silverman (2012). Proposed local ecological impact categories and indicators for life cycle assessment of aquaculture: a salmon aquaculture case study. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16(2):254-265
McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: an introduction to community-based social marketing (3rd ed.) Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.
Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (2013). Nova Scotia Environmental Farm Plan. Retrieved from http://nsfa-fane.ca/member-services/environmental-farm-plan/
Orr, D. (1994). Earth in mind: on education, environment, and the human prospect. Washington D.C: Island Press.
Pelletier, N., Tyedmers, P. (2008). Life cycle considerations for improving sustainability assessments in seafood awareness campaigns. Environmental Management 42: 918-931. DOI 10.1007/s00267-008-9148-9
Scott, J., MacLeod, M. (2010). Is Nova Scotia eating local? and if not… where is our food coming from? Ecology Action Centre. Retrieved from http://www.ecologyaction.ca/files/images/file/Food/FM%20July4%20_final_long_report.pdf
Weber, C., Matthews, H.C. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Enivronmental Science and Technology 42(10), 3508–3513. DOI: 10.1021/es702969f
© Jennifer Publicover, 2015