We are used to the idea that food is efficiently produced at large-scale, as part of a centralised food system. But what if there was another way of producing our food that was local? What could this mean for jobs, food miles (the distance food travels), the price of our food and the quality of that food?
Two hundred years ago food was mainly produced locally, but this has now changed. The current large-scale, centralised manufacture of food has given rise to global trade, greater variety of foods and lower prices. This has been linked to production moving to where it is most economically viable, for example to take advantage of low labour and tax costs. However, it has also resulted in lower nutritional value and harmful effects on the environment through fertiliser pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. These negative impacts on health, ecosystems, and cultures have been a strong motive for looking for alternative food systems such as local food production.
Our definition of local food production is ‘locally growing and/or processing food that is sold locally (e.g. within 100 miles)’. However, the feasibility of this mechanism might be challenging for various foods and this is being debated among various groups of stakeholders.
The creation of local jobs can be one of the main pros of local food production particularly for local authorities. Other economic benefits such as, local food markets may be an attraction for the tourist industry. Another reason for the growth of local food is for customers who are looking for organic foods. They are generally willing to pay more for a higher quality product which is also considered to be healthier. In addition, local manufacturers and artisans are investing in delivering high quality food in order to win local market share. Finally, the combination of short travel distances and local farming techniques (lack of chemical preservatives) makes the food consumed more likely to be organic and fresh. The belief that local foods are fresher than supermarket-bought food is also supported by the results of a recent poll in Europe.
However, the cons of local food systems include the higher price and lack of information about the real advantages of local food. Critics believe that the concept of fewer “food miles” in local foods is misleading as it does not consider the total energy use, especially in the production stages. The total amount of greenhouse gas emissions emitted during production far outweighs those from transportation. In addition, productivity and efficiency of local food production can be lower than large scale production. This implies that local food production may be worse for the environment than food made on a large scale.
Given the above pros and cons of local food manufacturing, it could be argued that in order for local, small and sustainable food production to survive, there needs to be strong support from government. In addition, many other questions need to be asked and resolved for each locally produced product. Within the “Local Nexus Network” research project we are asking some of these questions, such as, what proportion of food demand can be produced locally? Is there small-scale technology that can replicate large scale efficiency for local food production? What would be the impact of local food production on water and energy footprints and other environmental indicators?
A consortium of researchers led by the University of Oxford, are exploring these questions by assessing the manufacturing process for two contrasting products – tomato paste and bread. They are particularly looking at the associated energy and water needs of these two products through two case studies in Oxford and Northstowe in Cambridgeshire and have visited local producers such as Haven Nurseries, Worcestershire to gather information.