After decades of outsourcing and a stronger craving of consumers for exotic and foreign products, the last years have shown an increasing interest of buying locally produced goods, most importantly among them being food. One of many examples worldwide is city of Graz, in Austria, which developed its own label to support local food; another example is North Carolina, which started an initiative in order to make households spend 10% on their food budget on locally grown food; and finally, numerous websites exist in order to connect local producers with consumers.
Because of these initiatives, the local food market has considerably increased its size. In the USA for instance, a study carried out by the United States department of Agriculture shows that the local food market in the US doubled in size between 1997 and 2007. Although food is not the only product which can be consumed under the premise of sustainability, it is the most daily purchase and the easiest to switch to local options (especially vegetables and fruits), since we can find, other than for most consumer products, numerous alternatives all around us. However, what is the advantage of buying regional products?
First, what a regional or local product is should be defined. It depends strongly on the legislation in which somebody is allowed to call his or her product regional, but the limits are mostly somewhere between a distance of 150km and 500km from the place of purchase to its origin. This is of course a much smaller distance than most of our products in the supermarkets have travelled. As an example, the apples we consume in Europe from January to June come from the southern hemisphere, as it is just not apples season in the northern hemisphere.
Therefore, it seems logical to think that due to the extra carbon dioxide emissions associated to the transportation of these products from overseas, local products have to represent a more sustainable alternative. However, it is not that easy. Even for simple products like apples, a great amount of CO2 is emitted during the production process, especially during its harvesting, fertilizing and drainage. It may seem to be surprising, but for an average food product in the USA, only a 4% of the CO2 emissions is caused by its transportation throughout an average distance of 1650km. Although a local product saves in average around half the CO2 emissions allocated to transport in comparison to a foreign product, this would be still a rather small effect (about 2%).
This amount is even smaller if one compares it with products shipped from other continents. For example, an apple from South America can have almost the same emissions of CO2 during its transport than one from Spain when bought in France, as the high emissions of the container ship used to transport these apples from South America are divided by the huge amount of load it can carry. Notwithstanding, if transported by plane, the associated emissions would skyrocket up to a point where the local product would clearly be a more sustainable option than the foreign one.
Additionally, there is yet another aspect to be aware of. Other 40% of the CO2 allocated to transport is emitted after having purchased the product, that is during the transport from the retailer to the home of the consumer. One kilogram of regional vegetables needs around 530g of CO2 in order to be transported to the consumer, since the emissions per unit of product related to this local transportation are extremely big. A car produces up to 120g of CO2 just during the starting process, and even more during the way home. Even short distances between the retailer and the destination of the product can have a huge influence on the CO2 footprint. Therefore, it seems more reasonable to consume products which have been transported a certain distance in a wholesale transport, as a great load of products share the CO2, rather than small shipments transported locally.
Having said that, one should analyze product by product (where do they come from, how are they harvested, which transportation mean do they use, how efficient can the resources be used…) in order to really affirm that buying that product locally or not locally is more sustainable than doing otherwise since, especially small local farms can suffer from less optimized processes. Instead, I would like to focus on simple tips that we can apply in order to consume in a more sustainable way.
1. First, some products just have by their nature a higher emission than others do. Avoiding meat, especially beef, is one of the most effective strategies.
2. Secondly, our own personal mode of transportation is also crucial. Biking or walking to the closest conventional supermarket has a much less impact on climate than driving to the local food store some miles away.
3. Third, it is crucial to eat seasonal. Unseasonal fruits and vegetables always come with an extra price, since they are either stored under refrigeration, such as apples, or grown in greenhouses. These requirements can increase the CO2 emission by a factor of 10, and may even turn regional apples into a worse purchasing decision than the ones from the other side of the planet! Additionally, eating according to the season increases the chance of finding a local option and of guaranteeing a high quality and a lower price.
Written by Niklas Götz. High Energy Physics student and software engineer. Passionate about literature, hiking and the idea that people can come together to find solutions for a better future, as well as education, being the basis of all progress.
- Swissveg: https://www.swissveg.ch/transport
- CO2online: https://www.co2online.de/service/multimedia-center/broschueren-und-faltblaetter/co2-zaehler/
- Weber, Christopher L.; Matthews, H. Scott; Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology 2008 42 (10), 3508-3513
- Mittal, A.; Krejci, C.C.; Craven, T.J. Logistics Best Practices for Regional Food Systems: A Review. Sustainability 2018, 10, 168.
- Martinez, S. et al.; Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Economic Research Report No. (ERR-97) 87 pp.
Other interesting sources:
- Center for Environmental Farming Systems: https://cefs.ncsu.edu/resources/a-community-and-local-government-guide-to-developing-local-food-systems-in-north-carolina-2013/
- Graz Tourismus: https://www.graztourismus.at/en/eat-and-drink/products/regional-products