Local food benefits go far beyond food miles

Last week, social media was buzzing with frustration following clips from an Channel 4 News interview with Hannah Ritchie from Our World In Data. Here, Sustain’s Local Food Retail Coordinator, Rachel Jones, responds to statements made by Ritchie about the sustainability of local food and explores the wide-reaching reasons to shop local.

A recent Channel 4 News piece suggested that local food is not necessarily more sustainable because transport emissions make up a low percentage of the total carbon impact of food items.

It’s true that local food isn’t by default more sustainable. But when done right, local food can deliver a big range of environmental, social and economic benefits that go far beyond food miles.

But before we dive into the detail – local food means different things to different people – so, what do we at Sustain mean by truly “local food”?

  • Short supply chains – These involve few intermediaries and will typically be regional in nature but vary according to food type and location.
  • Independent retail – Food that is sold through a variety of outlets including online direct-to-consumer box schemes, markets, independent shops, convenience stores as well as larger retailers.
  • Local benefits – To be truly local, food must deliver benefits to the local producers, environments, communities, economies and eaters that it passes through.

So how does local food deliver on genuine sustainability?

Climate and nature friendly production
Food’s biggest environmental impact comes from how it is produced on-farm. And we find that producers currently supplying the local market are much more likely to be smaller-scale, less intensive, more biologically-diverse, organic and focus on seasonal produce that can be grown without energy inputs – all factors which shift us towards the net zero, nature-positive farming industry we desperately need to see.

Of course there are UK farms, near to where people live, producing in destructive ways. But being closer to home we have more opportunity to influence them towards more sustainable practices than we do farms on the other side of the world, through government and local authority policy, Sustainable Food Partnerships and what we demand as eaters.

Fairer pay for producers
Farmers are under strain financially. Shorter supply chains mean fewer middlemen taking a cut and a higher share of profits for farmers. Sustain’s Unpicking Food Prices report revealed that alternative food systems triple the share of profits that famers can receive for everyday food items, when compared to the supermarket system. What’s more, food sold locally is much more likely to be sold through independent retail, spreading the economic benefit into the community.

Food security
In the UK we currently import half of our vegetables and the majority of our fruit. Studies show that this overreliance on imports makes us vulnerable to increasing empty supermarket shelves due to disruption from climate change and extreme weather. A diversity of supply brings resilience and shorter supply chains leave less opportunity for disruption.

Community connection and cohesion
Local food systems build community. They create new relationships within local economies. They create a sense of identity in a place. They enable us to meet the people who produce our food. Carrick Greengrocers in Northern Ireland has helped revive a local high street and Cardiff Farmers Markets have been described as “outdoor community centres”. In times where loneliness and mental health issues are on the rise, the value of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

All this said, it’s worth noting the limits and challenges of local food. Not everything should, or even could, be sourced locally and we are big fans of Growing Communities Food Zones model. There’s also some way to go in optimising local food systems to maximise affordability and accessibility for all.

When done right, local food systems can provide a route to flourishing local high streets, connected communities, fair and sustainable economies, while providing food with flavour and freshness that’s hard to beat. And there’s living, breathing proof of this all around the country: everywhere from Sitopia Farm in London, to Organic North in Manchester, to Bowhouse in Fife, to Good Food Loop in Devon. And too many others to mention.

Maximising the benefits of local food
We believe there is huge untapped potential in local food systems, so Sustain, together with a coalition of partners, are developing a Local Food Growth Plan to increase the size of the local food sector by 10x by 2030, the first iteration of which will go live in April.

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