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Local food isn’t the climate solution you want it to be

A new study from Nature Food highlights the transportation costs associated with food production, but there's something wonky about the data.

Women with veggies on display

Your farmer's market is great but it's not a climate solution. Image via Shutterstock/

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Local food is better for the environment. That’s one of the most stubborn myths when it comes to sustainable food systems and one of the bubbles I’ve been trying to burst when talking to people about their eating habits. Instead of just shopping local, I’ve been rallying them to think about what they eat (more veg, less meat) and how it’s produced because transport is only responsible for about 6 percent of global food emissions. 

Then, earlier this month, Bloomberg reported on a new study published by researchers from the University of Sydney, Beijing Technology and Business University and Wuhan University in the renowned scientific journal Nature Food claiming that food transportation emissions are up to 7.5 times higher than previously estimated. The article also highlighted that "fruits and vegetables are particularly carbon-intensive to ship due to their bulk and the need for refrigeration during transport." 

My colleagues and friends loved this news — the article landed in my inbox at least a dozen times. Eating local meat seemed a much more agreeable climate solution than switching to a plant-rich diet. I’m sorry to burst the bubbles once again, but when looking closely at the study’s findings, they don’t support the headline-making statements about the benefits of local food and the drawbacks of eating vegetables. 

The study mostly came to new transportation estimates due to emissions categorizations. Food systems literature typically looks at transportation emissions in two buckets:

  1. Before and during production: Emissions related to producing and transporting fertilizers, on-farm machinery and other inputs. They count toward agricultural production emissions. 
  2. Post-harvest: Emissions associated with transporting the food from the farm to the final consumer, usually referred to as "food miles."

The second bucket is what matters when we talk about eating local vs. global because consumers are most interested in how far the food traveled to them, not so much where their farmer’s tractor, gasoline and fertilizer were manufactured and shipped from. But the new study added both emissions together in one sweeping transportation emissions calculation, which doesn’t provide useful information on the question of whether eating local food is better. 

The authors also assume that all vegetables are refrigerated during transportation, increasing emissions due to higher energy needs, but that’s not true. Only select perishable fruits and vegetables such as berries, leafy greens and zucchinis are refrigerated as opposed to more shelf-stable items such as apples and most root vegetables. Many regions around the world still don’t have temperature-controlled supply chains (which leads to more food waste, but that’s a different story). This means that current vegetable transportation has lower emissions than the authors assume.  

Local food isn’t a silver bullet solution for eating sustainably. Saving a few food miles only makes a marginal difference to emissions.

To sum up, the study didn’t establish a new truth about food and transportation. Food miles still aren’t top of mind regarding the food system’s climate footprint. Having established this, I’m not against eating local food. I’m a regular at my farmer's market and enjoy getting fresher and higher quality options with less packaging than in most supermarkets. 

But local food isn’t a silver bullet solution for eating sustainably. Saving a few food miles only makes a marginal difference to emissions. As a recent meta-analysis of two decades of research on local food systems demonstrates, there are other benefits to buying local food, but they’re less straightforward and have more caveats than we often think. 

Here are the three factors I hear most about:  

  1. Higher farmer income: Farmers indeed receive a larger share of food dollars when supply chains are shorter. That’s an essential consideration as farmers only receive about 15 cents of every dollar consumers spend on food in grocery stores. According to the National Farmers Union, the rest goes to marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retail. But selling at a farmers market or establishing other local supply chains also require more work and income is less predictable, so it’s not a given that farmers will be better off. 
  2. More nutritious: Another assumption is that eating local food is healthier. This may be true if it’s correctly produced, processed and stored or freshly harvested. But it’s not a given. Frozen, canned or otherwise preserved foods could be more nutritious alternatives, especially for lower-income populations who can’t afford the premiums that often come with farmers' markets or produce delivery boxes. 
  3. Better for sustainability: Consumers also tend to assume that local and smaller farms use more environmentally friendly practices. Again, this can be true, but it doesn’t have to be. Large farms often operate more efficiently and produce higher yields per acre, which is beneficial for the environment. For vegetables specifically, buying local tends to only be better if the varieties are also seasonal and adapted to the regional ecosystem because production in greenhouses or indoor environments can have higher energy costs. 

So, in the end, it all depends. Local food can be better, but it doesn’t have to be. If you really want to know, you need to ask a lot of questions and learn what kind of diet your region could realistically support, given its ecosystem and available farmland. But if you don’t do that, please don’t swap your Trader Joe’s vegetables for local beef, even if they’re wrapped in plastic.

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