Local food: it’s not just about the numbers

A while ago, introducing a food event, I was advised to chuck a few numbers about to illustrate the difficulties the Welsh food system is in. Things like: the number of curlews has dropped by 80% since 1990; there were 157 food banks in 2018; over 28% of children are overweight or obese in some areas; and of course, food accounts for 9% of Wales’ carbon footprint. It was supposed to give the audience something solid to anchor the discussion and also to give them a slight shock. It’s that bad?

Numbers have that effect. They give us authority and clinch arguments, and people don’t often query a well delivered statistic. But they are also easily twisted to suit our purposes, and they can distract us from a proper consideration of important topics.

Local food is a case in point. It’s not surprising that advocates of farmers’ markets and allotments are so fond of talking about food miles. You can count them, you can calculate the carbon emissions you have saved, and then you can rest your case. Of course we don’t often literally do the sums, but we know that we could, or somebody could, and meanwhile the happy cry of ‘food miles!’ says it all.

What’s wrong with food miles?

The trouble is, it’s not quite true. A study published in Science and cited recently in an article from Oxford University puts the contribution of transport at 6% of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food. This is way behind food production itself at 72%, the rest being due to processing, packaging and retail. 

If you want to cut carbon, the authors say, forget about local food. You should be eating less meat, dairy and eggs, and cutting down on waste. You might also want to seek out foods that were grown with less artificial fertilizer and good environmental management, although it’s not so easy to find out which those are. It’s also contested: using fewer inputs means taking up more land, and so is actually worse, according to one study of organic food

This is a problem of course for the local food enthusiast like me. I feel a strong emotional pull towards eating locally, and organically, but is that all it is — a sentimental and irrational obstacle to progress? Maybe, but I don’t want to give up yet. The alternative is to drop the food miles rhetoric and be more honest about what it is we are really doing when we choose ‘the Welsh one’. 

Tomorrow I will be harvesting two bags of rainbow chard and three bags of salad from our community garden in Aberystwyth, and delivering them to a food co-op for sale. It’s a two minute walk from one to the other, as it happens, and we grow our veg in ground which used to be a lawn, without any fertilizers or pesticides. We make lots of compost and we have a wildflower area. So that’s pretty good — but it’s a drop in the ocean beside the huge volume of supermarket sales.

Food with a story

What is really important about this little transaction though is that it gives people a connection with their food, different from the one they get in the supermarket. This is food with a story. It inspires people to know that they are eating food that was grown down the road, by people they may have met, and so they value it more. They talk about it and spread the word. This is likely to translate into more volunteers for us and eventually to more people growing food in sites around the town, maybe supplying restaurants and shops. This creates food culture.

Community growing is also an opportunity to learn new skills and make friends. Ours may soon be hosting patients from a local doctors’ surgery that is experimenting with green prescribing, because gardening is good exercise and being out in nature makes us happier. We work closely with a supermarket surplus group who organize regular pay-as-you-feel community meals. Once, we supplied the leeks for a St David’s Day dinner in town.

We are excited about supplying the co-op (also run by volunteers) because it makes us feel part of something bigger. The co-op recently started to buy eggs from a local farmer, and a few of us went to visit him last week. He is planning to diversify into vegetables and would like to host visits for the public. He hopes to rent out some land to a microdairy, so then there will be milk and cheese too. He might even sell some meat. We will all have been part of making that happen.

Bringing people together

This small example shows the power of local food to bring people together. There are thousands of similar projects all around the UK, many much bigger than ours. They are probably not making much of a dent, if any, in greehouse gas emissions. But they are changing hearts and minds, and that might be just as important. The coronavirus pandemic, by reminding us of the vulnerability that comes with our globalized food supply chains, is driving the message home.

US anthropologist David Beriss has written about how we use local food as a response to the forces of globalization, making food distribution more human and giving us a sense that we are doing something. As he said in a recent interview:

I think what people are really interested in is the local community they create around food. They’re also trying to do something good for a local business when they go to a local food purveyor or shop at a locally owned grocery store instead of shopping at a chain. And they feel like they are helping do something environmentally positive. […] You go to the farmers market and you meet people and you create this kind of third space — neither family nor business. 

Of course, the numbers matter. We do need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from food production, and that will mean eating differently. But we don’t know exactly how we are going to get there, and there are many other changes to make to our lifestyles, to do with transport and housing for example. We are looking at deep social change, and an important part of that will be building the trust and cooperation that will enable us to let go of what’s familiar. 

If that’s the case, then local food has an important part to play because it is such a good way of building community. Perhaps we should trust our experience more, and not be so impressed by statistics.

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