Going beyond local food


In many cities around the world, the local food movement has been instrumental in putting food on the agenda.

However, is local better than global?

A European research project called GLAMUR explored further the question. “What was at the beginning a simple question turned out to be not so simple”, explains Gianluca Brunori, from the University of Pisa (Italy), who coordinated the project.

The conclusion of the project is that, well, nothing is clear-cut. And cities should rather focus on bringing anyone – local and global food chains actors – on the path to sustainability.

What is really “local”, to start with?

The researchers looked at 39 food supply chains in different European countries, from asparagus produced and consumed in Belgium, to Spanish apples or Serbian berries produced locally but exported…

Their first challenge was to classify these supply chains as “local” or “global”. It did not turn out as easy as expected. For instance, how do you classify a locality cheese produced from caws fed with cereals imported from the other side of the world?

Their conclusion is that rather than having “truly local” or “truly global” chains, what we are facing is a continuum.

Why we should stop caring only about food miles

Food miles, i.e. the number of kilometers food travels before it reaches the consumer’s plate, has captured a lot of attention lately. Indeed, commonsense dictates that it is better from an environmental point of view to eat from local sources.

However, researchers found that, overall, global chains tend to be more efficient when it comes to energy and resource consumption per unit of product. This is due to economies of scales. It is less energy consuming, for instance, to transport bulk wine in trains than single bottles in cars.

Nonetheless, as things are not clear-cut, researchers also found counter-examples of local chains that are more environmentally-friendly. For instance, the local pork short chain that they studied in Netherlands was more efficient that global one. This was because the local chain used locally produced food and residual products from the food industry to feed the pigs, while the global chain (that produced pork meat in the country and then exported it) used soybean from South America and tapioca from Thailand.

Therefore, the conclusion of the research is that the environmental performance very much depends on the specificities of each food chain. Specific assessments are needed before taking action as it is not possible to only rely on assumptions.

Sustainability is complex, let’s deal with it

The food mile issue is a good example of how oversimplifying the problem can lead to taking the wrong decision. However, the complexity of food chains performance does not stop here. Indeed, sustainability is not only about the energy used in transportation. It covers a wide array of challenges: food security, affordability, resource use, food safety, animal welfare… to name but a few. In order to address this complexity, the researchers put together an assessment methodology that captures both quantitative and qualitative data on 24 dimensions deemed relevant by food stakeholders.

24 dimensions of sustainability in food systems
Economic Social Environmental Health Ethical
(1) affordability
(2) creation & distribution of added value
(3) economic development
(4) efficiency
(5) profitability
(6) resilience
(7) food security
(8) consumer behaviour
(9) territoriality
(10) connection
(11) labour relations
(12) resource use
(13) pollution
(14) biodiversity
(15) technological innovation
(16) food waste
(17) nutrition

(18) food safety
(19) traceability

(20) animal welfare
(21) responsability
(22) fair trade
(23) information
& communication
(24) governance

Source: Brunori et al, 2016

Here again, when assessing sustainability of the food chains, researchers found that it is impossible to establish a clear superiority” of local over global, or vice versa. For example, labour relations may be more informal in local chains, hence the social protection of workers might be lower. For isolated rural areas, longer food chains create more value as they enable production to reach larger consumer markets. And so on.

What the researchers found, however, is that the degree of coordination and trust between actors plays a key role in the ability of a food chain to transition towards sustainability. If actors know and trust each other, then it will be easier for them to address sustainability issues, as these require coordination. On the contrary, when food items are exchanged on spot markets, actors have very little relation to each other, and there is no time and no rules to work together.

Cities need to work both with local and global food systems actors

Such results open up new areas of action for urban food policies:

  • First, cities should aim at working with both local and global food actors, as both of them need to improve their practices on some sustainability aspects. They should stop assuming that local is inherently better and help local chains innovate towards sustainability. It might also be easier for cities to work with conventional actors, that are usually difficult to mobilize in local food policies, if they acknowledge that everyone has to make efforts.
  • Second, cities should explore synergies between local and global food chains. On the one hand, for instance, local food chains can act as niches of innovation for more conventional actors. Local food chains are crucial to stimulate innovation in the system, as they propose innovative patterns of production and consumption and this doing they challenge all players on the themes of sustainability. Moreover, thanks to their direct relationship with consumers, foster their involvement on food issues. This, for urban food policies, may be quite important. On the other hand, conventional actors can integrate local chains in their infrastructure planning. For example, in Italy, supermarkets chains are starting to develop logistics platforms for local food. This meets a gap in the existing organization of the local food chain, and avoids duplicating infrastructure.

Going further, cities can play a crucial role in stimulating exchanges between food actors that have very different views on how food chain performance should be assessed. Environmental impacts, affordability, health issues, labour rights, resilience challenges, animal welfare… all these aspects should be discussed. Such exchanges would help actors to go beyond simplistic views of “what’s good” and “what’s bad”, and anticipate the full consequences of otherwise good-intended actions. In other words, local authorities have a key role in making actors aware of the complexity of food systems.

Albane Gaspard – September 2017

NB: the author would like to thank Gianluca Brunori for his inputs and comments.


  • Open source academic paper

Brunori, G., Galli, F., Barjolle, D., Broekhuizen, R. V., Colombo, L., Giampietro, M., Kirwan, J., Lang, T., Mathijs, E., Maye, D., Roest, K. D., Rougoor, C., Schwarz, J., Schmitt, E., Smith, J., Stojanovic, Z., Tisenkopfs, T. & Touzard, J-M. (2016). Are Local Food Chains More Sustainable than Global Food Chains? Considerations for Assessment. Sustainability, 8(5), .449.

  • Publicly available report

Smith J, Lang T, Vorley B and Barling D (2015) GLAMUR WP6 – Policy Recommendations and Policy Implementation Road Map (Deliverable 6.2). City University London, IIED and University of Hertfordshire UK.

  • Other academic papers

Kirwan, J., Maye, D. and Brunori, G. (2017), “Acknowledging complexity in food supply chains when assessing their performance and sustainability”, Journal of Rural Studies, Vol 52, pp. 21-32

Kirwan, J., Maye, D. and Brunori, G. (2017), “Reflexive governance, incorporating ethics and changing understandings of food chain performance”, Sociologica Ruralis, Volume 57, Issue 3, pp. 357–377

Schmitt, E., Gallib, F., Menozzic, D., Mayed, D., Touzard, J-M, Marescottif, A., Sixa, J., Brunori, G. (2017), “Comparing the sustainability of local and global food products in Europe”, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 165, pp 346-359

Picture credits: Pixabay 

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