The Sustainability of Eating Local

Cook and culture

Written by cookandculture | Edited by Carol Coutinho and Jason Edano



It shouldn’t be too far fetched to believe that eating locally produced food lowers your environmental footprint. But is that even possible in 2020 and if so, are the reductions to your carbon footprint worth the hassle? This post will attempt to breakdown the impact of your food miles and compare their impact on the environment and how it stacks up against the changes in access, nutrition and overall stability of the food system. 

What is local food? 


According to the USDA, “Local food is defined as the direct or intermediated marketing of food to consumers that is produced and distributed in a limited geographic area. There is no predetermined distance to define what consumers consider “local,” but a set number of miles from a center point or state/local boundaries is often used. More importantly, local food systems connect farms and consumers at the point of sale.”

This means that eating local could include food produced within 10 miles or 200 miles. Different foods require different means of transport too, with some needing refrigeration or extra packaging and others not as much. So just how much does one food mile make a difference? 

Environmental Impact of Food Miles


I’ll just come out with the truth upfront, transportation is a very poor indicator of the environmental impact of a food item. One such study found that transportation accounted for 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions during the life cycle, while production was 83%. In fact, only 4% was attributed to the transportation of foods from producer to retail, the distance we would traditionally associate with food miles. The rest of the transport-related emissions come from indirect freight (think fertilizers for the crops or feed for animals) rather than that final transport to retail. The emissions were measured in global warming potential equivalences per U.S. household per year. Total emissions from the scope of this study found each household’s environmental footprint from food to be 8.1 tons of CO2e per year meaning emissions from food miles were 0.36 tons of CO2e annually. 

The biggest indicator of emissions amongst transportation results from the type of transportation utilized. Air travel vastly outweighed any other transport option. Fortunately, air travel (both domestic and international) accounts for less than 1% of the total transportation utilized in the total U.S. food supply chain. Trucking is the second greatest emitter on an emissions per ton of food transported per km travelled basis and represents 28% of the total supply chain transportation. In terms of food miles (final transport), trucking is the primary mode of transportation, accounting for 62% of all methods used. This coupled with its emissions output means that trucking is responsible for 71% of all transport-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. according to this study. A more detailed breakdown of transportation sources used and their proportional contribution of emissions can be seen below. 

Perhaps the most staggering conclusion from the study was that “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” This shouldn’t deter you from eating local for environmental reasons, but rather help to understand that it is not the most impactful way to make your diet more sustainable. That said, there are other benefits to eating local that should be considered alongside environmental impact in terms of food sustainability. 

Reductions in Waste


Many foods have a limited shelf life and this means that the longer a perishable food must be transported, the greater chance it has to become unfit for consumption before reaching the consumer. While the U.S. food supply chain is actually quite efficient with transport and the majority of wastage occurs at the consumer facing businesses and households, eating local still lowers the likelihood of food going uneaten as a result of issues during transport. 

Improvements in Nutrient Content


Produce begins to go through nutrient degradation when it is removed from its source of nutrients (the plant it is growing from). This means that fresh fruits and vegetables will lose some of their nutrient integrity the longer they are in transport and storage. Time after harvest is not the only factor that affects the nutritional content of produce, as soil quality, temperature, humidity, proper handling, processing and cooking/eating method all factor in as well. By eating local, you ensure that less nutrients are lost had that same food been produced under like conditions further away, but had to endure the risks during and time throughout transporting that item. In other words, eating locally mitigates the risks of nutrient loss that are both guaranteed and more likely to occur when produced further away. 

Supporting the Local Economy


By eating locally you also get the chance to help boost your local economy, which in turn means that your local community can become more sustainable. By supporting local businesses, in this instance food producers, you help to ensure that they are economically supported to continue to operate over time. You get your food now and they can continue to provide the community with food for the foreseeable future. By eating locally you also ensure that more of your money goes directly to the farmer. When you cut out steps like additional transport and retail, that final price of the food does not have to incorporate them when you buy local.  

Eating Local Ensures Seasonal Eating 


When you can choose to eat locally, you know that the food has to have been produced in season. Continuing to do so encourages a local farm production system that rotates its crops, which is greatly beneficial for the soil. Proper soil management is imminent for the future success, and thus sustainability of the food system. Obviously, there are some areas of the country where the climate permits the ability to grow the same food year round, but eating locally still allows you to have access to the freshest versions of those foods. 

Less Preservatives and Processing


Preservatives are substances that are added to foods to ensure that they last longer. When you eat locally, there is usually a shorter time between food production and food purchase and consumption. This means that there is less of a need to utilize preservatives for locally produced food. Should you want to consume fewer preservatives in your diet, local eating remains a great way to begin to do so. 

Preservatives are a subset of what could widely be defined as food processing. Processed foods are essentially those that have been altered in one way or another from their natural state. This could include items that are pre-cooked, dehydrated, or have nutrients, coloring or sugars fats or salts added to them. This is sometimes necessary to ensure longer shelf life and food safety of items that will not be consumed until later. By choosing to purchase local foods, you reduce the necessity that these items be processed for those reasons. This is not to say that all processing is bad and that all raw food items are better, but should you want to reduce your dependence on processed foods, eating local may be a good option for you to begin to do so. 

A Better Understanding of Your Food


Eating local helps you to interact more directly with the person or people producing it. You can communicate directly about the methods and motivations behind the foods being developed. This has a lot of advantages and is perhaps the most dramatic difference between eating locally produced foods and those brought in from further distances. 

Building a relationship with your producer can help you to learn more about what it takes to create that food, but also to be vocal about what you want from it. If there is any preference towards animals fed with a certain feed or food developed with fewer additives, the direct line of communication is more available with a local producer. With a smaller market, your individual voice also has a proportionately larger impact. 

We have also never been more disconnected from our food production than we are today. With the rise of urbanization and the availability of more streamlined foods at groceries, it’s easy to forget everything that it takes to produce edible food. If you are able to visit a local farm or food processing plant and get a tour, I would highly recommend it. Understanding what it takes to produce food that you eat is guaranteed to make you appreciate it more. Hopefully, this will also allow you to determine what you do and don’t want from your food and be more active about seeking items out that fit those parameters or encourage more producers to adopt certain standards.

Moral of the Story


The moral of this story is that you should not let perfection be the enemy of food. It’s easy to put two and two together and assume that food miles have a massive impact on the environmental footprint of food. Transportation is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the U.S., and therefore more food miles should mean a much larger footprint. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. 

Will eating only locally produced foods reduce your environmental footprint – YES. 

Will it significantly reduce it – NO (or at least not just by reducing the food miles alone). 

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it a point to eat local for environmental reasons, because it does have an impact and positive change is always good. It can be used in conjunction with other methods such as wasting less, limiting overconsumption, eating fewer animal products or switching from beef to chicken and pork more often. There are also many other advantages to eating local. These advantages essentially all stem from the simplicity of the food purchasing process. There are fewer steps, locations and people in between. This means that there is more access to the producer, less need to alter the food, increased freshness, and less waste along the way. 

Eating local is great and so is reducing your food miles. Hopefully, this article has helped to encourage you to do so without feeling guilty if you cannot, and provided a better understanding of the sustainability of eating locally. 

If you liked the article please share it so that you can help spread the message and encourage others to eat local! 

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