Should You Buy Local Produce To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?
When you think of sustainable food, you might well think of your local farm shop or Sunday market. A stall piled high with muddy carrots, tops and roots still in tact, sold by the farmer who grew and picked them.
Local food feels sustainable. In the United States, food typically travels between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers from farm to plate, up to 25 percent farther than in 1980. In the United Kingdom, food travels 50 percent farther than it did two decades ago. 
So shopping local almost definitely reduces the distance that your food has to travel before it reaches your plate, meaning less greenhouse emissions associated with transport. It means you have a deeper understanding of where that food came from and how it was grown, so you have a higher level of control over what you’re eating. It also means you’re supporting local businesses and contributing to the economy in the area.
That’s all true, but is there another side to the story?
The main factors which go into how sustainable and environmentally friendly a food item is, are the transport and storage of that item. This is because the transport and storage of food require energy, which today still comes primarily from fossil fuels, and therefore there’s an associated cost in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
If you buy food which is local and in season then it will likely have been picked recently, and so the storage costs will be low. However, if you buy food grown locally which is not in season, it could have been stored throughout the year, racking up a high cost in emissions. A paper published in 2010 by researcher Gareth Edward-Jones uses the example of apples to demonstrate this point :
“During the autumn months, UK-grown apples have been newly picked and not stored for long; as a result the total energy expended in supplying UK apples at this time is low. However, as the storage time increases into the UK spring and early summer, the amount of expended energy increases. The New Zealand apple harvest is seasonally converse to the UK harvest, in March and April. At this time, apples from New Zealand are exported to the UK by ship, which has low emissions per tonne. During the early summer, therefore, it may be more GHG efficient to import New Zealand apples than to store UK apples.”
The same is true of foods such as tomatoes. British people will often choose to buy British tomatoes because they think it’s a better choice for the environment. However, tomatoes grown in Britain have probably been grown in greenhouses which are heated in order to maintain the temperature that tomatoes need in order to grow. This obviously produces greenhouse gas emissions from the energy used to hear the greenhouse. In warmer countries, such as Spain in the Mediterranean, tomatoes can grow outdoor without requiring extra heat energy.
Thinking beyond locally-grown fruit and vegetables, some consumers also choose to buy their meat and dairy products from local butchers or markets, feeling that this will reduce their impact. Again, if the animal was reared and executed locally then you are almost definitely reducing the emissions associated with the food from transportation, and so reducing the environmental impact of your meal.
However, meat and dairy are also amongst the most impactful food items that you can choose to consume. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of our worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. It takes 2–5 acres of land and 1,250,000 gallons of water (based on a pound of beef = 2500 gallons of water) to produce one cow. Therefore, choosing to buy your meat from local sources instead of overseas will actually only reduce the environmental impact of your food by a fraction. If you instead decided to reduce the amount of meat and dairy that you consume, you would be reducing your impact by much more . This could be through going vegetarian or vegan, by choosing one day per weak to eat meat-free, through making simple swaps like moving to dairy-free milk, or through making one meal a day vegetarian.
Locally food is also likely more expensive than buying your typical supermarket option. This can be a good thing: you’re supporting local businesses, and by choosing to shop with local farmers you’re sending a signal to the larger corporations that their way of doing things isn’t the only way. However, you could also argue that this isn’t the most efficient use of your money if you want to stop climate change. Instead, you could opt to buy a cheaper supermarket option, and give the extra money you would have spent to high impact environmental charities. If this argument makes sense to you, check out Cool Earth and Sandbag which are amongst the most cost-effective charities for tacking climate change and mitigating its effects .
In conclusion, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer when it comes to the question of whether buying local is a good way to reduce your environmental impact. It probably isn’t a bad thing if you do choose to shop this way, although Gareth Edward-Jones’ paper does warn against the ‘unforeseen implications’ that can arise when we choose to shop local blindly, without knowing all the facts about how the food was grown, stored, and transported:
“These claims are probably not harmful when they are made by producers at the local level; however, should claims start to gain traction in policy circles, then they could lead to pro-local decisions that may have unforeseen implications on the environment and developing countries engaged in the export of food items.”
If shopping locally works for you, and you feel confident that the producers that you’re buying from are lower impact than your alternative options, then by all means go ahead. But ensure that you’re focused first and foremost on the changes which have the most impact on the environment when it comes to individuals: reducing your meat and dairy intake, choosing active travel options, powering your home with renewable energy, and using your voice to raise awareness and drive change from those at the top of the chain.
If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your impact:
- Is buying fairtrade a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you buy dried or tinned beans?
- Is carbon offsetting a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you swap plastic bags fortote bags?
- Which kind of milk should you buy?
 ‘Homegrown: the case for local food in a global market’, a report by Worldwatch Institute
 ‘Does eating local food reduce the environmental impact of food production and enhance consumer health?’, Gareth Edward-Jones, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2010), https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665110002004