Local’ is not always sustainable, says report

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Local food

A mistaken tendency to assume ‘local sourcing’ is always the most sustainable option is holding back the debate on the future of food production,...

A mistaken tendency to assume ‘local sourcing’ is always the most sustainable option is holding back the debate on the future of food production, according to a new report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

“Perhaps the real problem is that a continuing emphasis on local food lets us all off the hook because it does not challenge us to clearly articulate an alternative vision of the food system”, says the NEF in Re-framing the great food debate: The case for sustainable food​.
It was too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a local-scale food system would be inherently more sustainable socially than a national-scale or global-scale food system, added report author Jim Sumberg. “Common sense suggests that a local employer could be as exploitative as a global corporation; or that a local farm could be associated with as much environmental damage as one far away. Scale should be seen as a means to achieve specific, desired outcomes, but always with the understanding that the eventual outcomes will depend not on the scale itself but on the agenda of those who are empowered by it.”
Detailed analyses of the carbon footprints of food and drink products had also exposed a lot of ‘lazy thinking’ about the environment and local sourcing in particular, with many studies demonstrating that tapping into more efficient national and even international distribution networks was the lower carbon option, added Sumberg.
But wider ethical issues also needed to be addressed. “Directly related to this is the ongoing debate around the role of food exports to the global north within pro-poor development strategies for the global south.
“The case of fresh fruit and vegetables imported from developing countries is often highlighted and there is now a significant body of research exploring, for example, the employment and labour relations, gender, and poverty effects of export horticulture. One author approached this in a very provocative way by asking whether we had a ‘moral obligation’ to eat strawberries at Christmas. He argued that the commonly cited environmental justification for favouring local food (reduced food miles) is far too simplistic and that any resulting ‘boycott of fresh produce from the poorest and most vulnerable countries will have a significant negative impact on their efforts to eradicate their poverty’.”
To download the report, click here​.