Benefits of Supporting our Local Food Systems

In recent years, there has been a lot of emphasis on eating, buying, and thinking locally. Focusing on local food systems is much more than just eating seasonally and being more mindful about where our food comes from.

7 months ago   •   5 min read

By Mark Pearton

Why We Should Be Supporting Our Local Food Systems

A recent article from Vox argued that eating locally just doesn't cut it when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint within your diet. While the article made many good points, here's what it misses and why supporting local food systems is important when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint and fighting climate change.

What you eat vs where it comes from

food greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain
Food: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Across the Supply Chain Chart

Using a graph from Our World Data to demonstrate the greenhouse gas emissions per food type, Vox argued that the amount of carbon emissions produced from the transport of food – highlighted in pink – was insignificant compared to other factors such as land usage, farming practices, crop production for animal feed, and the process and production of the final food product. It's not where you get the food from, they say – it's what you actually eat that matters.

From the graph, you can see at the top of the list is beef, by far the heaviest in CO2 emissions than other foods, even other meats. At the bottom of the graph, with minuscule numbers by comparison, are plant-based foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and plant-based alternatives.

Of course, this argument is solid. And eating lower CO2 foods is one of the biggest ways to reduce your carbon footprint – there's no denying that. But there are also multiple benefits to supporting local food systems that simply cannot be ignored and that have been proven to contribute to the fight against climate change in more than one way.

Jobs and the economy

Where you spend your money is just as important as what you spend it on. Every dollar you spend at a chain supermarket or corporation is essentially a vote for that company. So, equally, buying locally is voting for your local community. Spending money within your community, such as at local farms, markets, or produce stalls, is proven to actively stimulate regional and local economic growth.

Diane Imrie, Director of Nutrition Services at University of Vermont Medical Centre speaks about the benefits of local food in hospitals. 

A Local Procurement programme launched by the University of Vermont Medical Centre in 2006 saw an initiative to 'revolutionise and localise the food service' within the hospital. The hospital was estimated to serve 1.55 million meals a year, and the Local Procurement Programme aimed to focus on fresh, seasonal, minimally processed, locally produced and sourced food to staff and visitors from its five food outlets. The hospital partnered with local farmers and sourced sustainable seafood exclusively from North America. Some of the food was also sourced from on-site gardens, where herbs and produce were grown on the hospital's own rooftop.

The results showed an increase in jobs, with two new full-time positions created and an additional $625,100.80 to $1,108,654.20 made in local food purchases. Not only were there quantifiable results in jobs and local economic growth but also vendors were happier and more motivated with their steady volume of sales. They also reported to have seen an increase in relationships and camaraderie within the community.

Supporting local food systems has a wealth of opportunities to create jobs like growers, pickers, processors, retailers, and drivers for local transport. Stimulating economic growth helps communities thrive, connecting in a positive way and becoming self-reliant, rather than looking at imports and large chain supermarkets for supply.

Eating seasonally

Eating seasonally is not always easy to do, and many chain supermarkets in Australia are not completely upfront about the seasonality of their produce. Our bodies are meant to eat winter produce in winter and summer produce in summer. Yet our access to global food supplies means we have no problem eating tomatoes in July or turnips in December if we want to. Eating seasonally is not only healthier and tastier, but it's also what our bodies are meant to do.

On top of the health side of things, flying in winter produce when it's summer in Australia means extra energy and resources to keep it at optimal temperature. This means high refrigerator usage and chemicals to maintain produce, as well as a lot of processing involved. Wouldn't it be simpler and more resourceful to eat what we have around us?

Fighting climate change, CO2, and waste

As the Vox article points out, the carbon emissions produced from food transportation isn't as large as other factors, but that doesn't mean it doesn't count. If we can eliminate international food transportation and simply switch to local food transportation, why wouldn't we? Importing food from all over the world means your produce has been on planes and boats, pumping out gases into the atmosphere, when they could have simply been transported by road less than an hour away.

Buying locally also reduces the amount of food waste as vendors are much more mindful with their leftovers than large supermarkets are. Australia sees around 5 million tonnes of food wasted every year. Supermarkets are one of the biggest contributors to this, where food is added straight to landfill rather than composted, re-used, given away for free, or used for pigswill. Food waste in landfill does not break down, and it even adds to CO2 within the atmosphere.

Protecting against future global crises

Local Food Procurement Research Study By Eat Well Tasmania uncovered the benefits that a localised food system could have on Tasmania. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we need greater resilience in our food system in Australia. Relying on exports and mega-corporations for our food resulted in an ugly display of hoarding and food shortages that simply didn't need to happen. A study from Eat Well Tasmania reported that a staggering 78% of food grown and produced in Tasmania is sent to the mainland or overseas.

Nurturing locally-focused communities means this food can be kept within local areas, with minimal processing, giving people access to fresh, seasonal, and healthy foods, and allowing each and every part of Australia to be much more self-reliant. We've seen how much island nations and states can suffer when a global pandemic occurs. Being more self-reliant would build our resilience against future pandemics and crises. It's imperative for people in Australia to have proper access to seasonal, fresh, healthy, and minimally processed foods when we have all the means and resources at our disposal.

Conclusion

Climate change and food are not black and white arguments but areas with many different branches and varying situations. Supporting local food systems has various benefits, much more than simply transport emissions. While focusing on what you eat is important, focusing on where you get it is also important. And, you can be mindful about both things at once. From several articles and studies, we can see that supporting local economies affects jobs, local economic growth, carbon emissions, and even global pandemics. In turn, local economies and pandemics have their own effects on climate change. It's much more than just a one-way street – it is a multi-pronged issue that can be tackled and discussed in many ways.

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