Montreal, February 16, 2010 – Buying locally as measured in “food miles” – the distance between where food is grown and where it is sold – is a poor indictor of a product’s impact on the environment and is thus not a valid way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is the conclusion of an Economic Note published today by the Montreal Economic Institute and prepared by Pierre Desrochers, associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga, in collaboration with Hiroko Shimizu, a private consultant.
“There are perfectly legitimate reasons for consumers to make the personal choice of buying locally grown food if, for example, they find products from local farms to be superior in quality or freshness,” Prof. Desrochers stated. “On the other hand, the supposed environmental benefits of buying locally just aren’t there.”
Rather than looking only at the distance between the place of production and the grocery store, it is preferable to ensure that food is produced as efficiently as possible in the most appropriate places, even when they are far away. The researchers point to an American study showing that production is responsible for 83% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, whereas transportation accounts for only 11% of total emissions.
“If we want to calculate the environmental impact of a strawberry, we have to look at its entire life cycle, from when it is grown to when it reaches our plate,” Prof. Desrochers explains. “We then see that California can produce strawberries almost year-round, far more efficiently and with lower quantities of inputs such as fertilizers. One hectare can produce 50,000 kg of fruit compared to only 7,000 to 10,000 kg in Ontario. We have to recognize that some locations are more favourable for producing certain crops.”
A full assessment of food’s environmental impact must also take account of transportation to its final destination in the consumer’s home. The many trips by car to bring home small volumes of food, as done by each family, have a relatively significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Cars are less efficient than the huge ships or airplanes that move food from where it is grown to where it will be sold. Shipping enormous quantities of food requires far less energy per apple or lamb chop, even if the distance is much greater.
The Economic Note published today, titled Will Buying Food Locally Save the Planet?, can be consulted free of charge on our website.
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The Montreal Economic Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research and educational organization. Through studies and conferences, the MEI informs public debates in Quebec and Canada by suggesting wealth-generating reforms based on market mechanisms.
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