Why eat local food?

Eating local, seasonal food from sustainable sources is better for you, the environment and the local economy. Here, CCF trustee Bev Sedley explains how.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Food makes up a surprisingly large part of our individual carbon footprints, which are contributing to dangerous climate change and this food footprint can vary enormously, depending on what we eat and where it comes from (see below).

Celebrating the amazing diversity of our local seasonal produce

We produce some wonderful foods in Cambridgeshire but often don’t know where our food comes from and eat anonymous foods from all over the world – eating locally gives us a chance to get to know and to support our local farmers (shopping at the Cambridge Sunday farmers’ market is a great social experience, worlds away from the drudgery of pushing a trolley round a supermarket!)

Ensuring food security

We are incredibly dependent on long and complex food supply chains – did you know that, during the oil blockades a few years ago, we were three days away from having no food on supermarket shelves?

Eating a healthier diet

Eating local food usually means cooking from scratch, which means that we know exactly what we are eating – nowadays we often eat large amounts of sugar, salt and fats in processed foods without even realising just how high the level really is. This contributes to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

  • Transport: Local food from a local farmers’ market or a veg box scheme has travelled a much shorter distance than supermarket food from all over the world. Even when supermarkets display “local” food, it has often travelled further than you might think: even if it is produced just down the road, as it has to go first to be packaged centrally – how annoying is that?! (20% of greenhouse gas emissions from food are due to transport overall, but buying soft fruits from California has an enormous carbon cost, as the fruit has to be flown in, and flying is one of our most greenhouse gas-intensive activities!)
  • Packaging: Local food often has a lot less packaging on it, too (10% of food emissions) – from a market, for example, it can often go straight into your bag.
  • Processing: Over 20% comes from food processing: as a general rule, the more different ingredients food has, the higher the emissions from processing the food. This means it is much better to cook your meals from scratch – something we would have done without thinking 50 years ago. This is where eating local food really wins out – most processed and ready-meals have ingredients that come from all over the world. If we want to be sure of eating local food, we need to cook more from scratch, which also produces fewer carbon emissions. And it’s creative, fun and delicious! (And needn’t take as long you’re probably thinking!)
  • Production: The production of food, at just under 50%, accounts for nearly half of our food emissions, and this is where eating locally doesn’t necessarily make a difference. Eating meat and dairy products accounts for an enormous part of our food footprint, partly because of the methane that cows give off (the famous “belching cows”) and partly because you could feed eight people on the food the cow eats to produce one small steak. So, while eating locally, we need to be a bit careful about how much meat and cheese we eat, even if it is local – some of our local cows are grass-reared (lower emissions!) and eat spare crops like parsnips and silage in the winter, but they still belch and fart, so should be enjoyed sparingly! Wild rabbits and pigeons, on the other hand, are zero-carbon, as they are a pest to the farmer! Still on food production, the reason organic food is so much better for the environment is that artificial non-organic pesticides and fertilisers are made from fossil fuels and have higher carbon emissions.

What about the “seasonal” bit?

Local food can be quite high in carbon emissions if it is eaten out of season – you know the sort of thing: local tomatoes grown in a hothouse in the winter, local apples kept in cold store and eaten in May, when they are more carbon-intensive than apples imported from New Zealand. In order to really benefit from eating locally, we need to enjoy our food seasonally as well – the way we all did until 40 years ago, before refrigeration really took off and we started sourcing food globally. Personally, I find food tastes much more special when you can’t have it all the time: nothing beats our local asparagus in May, strawberries in June, July, August, apples in September, over-wintered broad beans in April… My mouth is watering just thinking about them!