The end of buying local? Probably not.

An exceptionally interesting article appeared on the guardian a few days ago which I think deserves a bit of further examination. The article  is well worth a read here , as is the original piece of research it is based on (which can be found here - all 120 pages of it). However, assuming you don’t want to commit to the cause with quite that much enthusiasm, I’m feeling generous so I shall summarise. It is argued that a large part of the drive for us all to eat locally and reduce our food miles lies in the fact that it is highly beneficial for the environment to do so. Looking at the example of several fresh foods being imported from New Zealand, this research shows that we are basing our view of the matter on false information. In short, it is better for the environment to buy apples imported from New Zealand, than it is to buy apples from the farmer down the road. Sound unlikely? I thought so too.

However, using the same amount of land, and the same amount of fertilisers and pesticides etc, New Zealand can produce an average of 50 tonnes of apples compared to the 14 that England manages. New Zealand’s climate and farming techniques are simply more suited to apple farming than the UK. Even when we factor in the transport to the UK, it is still more energy efficient to buy your apples from New Zealand. Similar statistics also exist for lamb, where although the UK produces a higher yield, it does so using more nitrogen fertiliser by a factor of 13.

I could go on and list more examples, but I think this is sufficient to make the point. If you are interested in more, I would advise reading Jay Rayner’s article in full.

The reason that this has not been made more of until now, is that the concept of food miles has previously only looked at the transport environmental costs involved in production, ignoring the environmental costs associated with production itself. Quite how this has avoided examination until now does baffle me somewhat.

Anyway, as interesting as the article is, and I do agree with its title, that worrying about food miles is missing the point, I think it’s important to highlight a couple of points. Jay Rayner doesn’t seem to acknowledge sufficiently the other arguments for buying local. He sees this information as ‘the final nail in the coffin of localism’. I think this is taking it too far. Firstly, I would argue that if we do not continue to encourage people to buy locally then things will never improve. If the demand for local produce goes up then production methods should improve as more suppliers enter the market, increasing competition and so producers are more inclined to make their product more efficiently. Or so my limited grasp of economics would suggest.

More significantly to me personally, I am somewhat surprised that he doesn’t seem more concerned with the quality of what we eat. The fact is that asparagus from England is always going to be fresher than that imported from Peru and Italy, even if they can produce it in a more environmentally friendly way (I don’t know if they can). No doubt there are dozens of similar examples, strawberries for instance.

Having said this, I am happy to acknowledge that this report certainly does suggest that the debate over localism cannot always be approached through environmental concerns, as many, myself included, would previously have been inclined to do.