Commentary: Buying Local Versus Imported Food

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 01.01.2008

Don't Throw the Baby Out With The Bath!


Over the last few years it has been suggested by a wide range of organizations that there are significant social, economic, and environmental benefits gained by purchasing local food products. Examples of proposed environmental benefits include:


  • Reduced packaging,
  • Reduced impact of transportation,
  • Reduced risk from agro-chemicals due to less intensive farm practices,
  • Increased bio-diversity of the region, and
  • Lower livestock densities.


However, recently there has been a backlash against the “buy-local” approach. This backlash is connected to research conducted by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, London. Professor Lang's research aimed to simplify the discussion about competing food sources by coining the phrase “food miles”. The concept of “food miles” serves as a potential indicator of environmental friendliness and helps highlight the hidden consequences of food production and distribution. [1] The discussion highlights a significant challenge to the single criteria distance-based approach that preferences local over everything else. In short, a more complex analysis suggests that there may be regions better equipped (e.g. climate, land availability, labor) to provide the lowest cost and lowest environmental impact products. Thus, there may be situations where those regions may be the most “environmentally-friendly” producer, even if those regions are potentially far from their end markets. In short, this research indicates that there may be exceptions to the direct correlation between long distance transport and high environmental cost and thus a simplistic approach may not apply.


An interesting result of this challenge to the food miles indicator has been the degree to which this debate has been quickly interpreted by many members of the media (and others) as a refutation of the concept of “buy local” in general. This raises the question of why people are so ready to throw out a complete environmental concept just because a specific detail is challenged?


It is possible the answer to this question is linked to recent discussions regarding the growing number of widely accepted Internet myths. Specifically, there is strong apparent willingness of the public to adopt certain Internet myths into their belief systems. The willingness is so strong that even in the face of conflicting data and, in some cases, outright admission of hoaxes, people continue to believe in that myth. Analysts have concluded that those myths that are accepted most readily and most deeply are those that support an individual's existing beliefs or desires, or those that support current behaviors. Thus, in applying this to the “buying local” example, it is possible that any information that supports current food buying behaviors, i.e. NOT buying local, is quickly accepted as a more general truth than it actually is. Thus, people are ready and willing to throw out environmental proposals in their entirety whenever those proposals conflict with their existing behaviors.


In regard to the specific challenge to “food miles” as a reasonable indicator of the potential environmental costs of those products, it is valuable to determine whether or not this approach is “generally” true or not. The key to addressing complex environmental issues is often in defining which approach can be considered to address the rule and what entails the exception .


Previous Dovetail articles have pointed out the risks of exporting environmental impacts to other regions. At this point, imperfect as it is, the “food miles” indicator does appear to have merit as a general guideline for the consuming public.


There are likely to be situations where the environmental impacts of purchasing from a distance are less than those of buying locally. New Zealand is often pointed out to have certain environmental advantages. However, it is also possible that those situations are niche based and, in some cases, fleeting.


It is also likely that the systems necessary to improve the efficiency of distributing locally produced foods will improve dramatically with greater use and over the next few years. The benefits to the health and well-being of both individuals and the planet may depend on a region's ability to localize and control a majority of its impacts and to provide a highly diverse range of foodstuffs to the marketplace.


Food-miles may not be a perfect solution to evaluating food sources, but in the absence of a comprehensive life cycle assessment it is at least a step forward. Any short-comings in the concept should not be attributed to the core and much broader benefits associated with buying local.


Dr. Jeff Howe

January 2008


[1] The “food miles” concept is based on the premise that the further food is produced from its market, the greater impact its total life cycle will have on the environment.