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Human Stories

What does ‘local’ really mean?

Eating local, or buying local products is becoming more and more ingrained into our everyday life. Supermarkets advertise that some of their produce is local or from local farmers. Yet, ‘local’ is a term that can mean everything and nothing at the same time.

Can we really define local? 

A ‘local food system’ does not have one single definition, as everyone defines it a little bit differently. One of the most common factors used to define local is the geographical distance between the point of sale and point of production.1 For others, local can also be defined by how good their relationship is with their food producer, as well as the trust they have in that relationship.1

Where it gets complicated is when the EU offers support for ‘local’ food systems, which would lead us to believe that they have a clear definition of ‘local’. They do not. In fact, the definition is left to the member states’ rural development programmes, with the only premise being that distance needs to be a defining factor.2 This link to short distances between the start and end of supply chains often pins local food systems as one and the same with ‘short food supply chains’ or SFSCs. But while they are similar, there are a few key distinctions.

Short food supply chains vs local food systems 

The main difference between the two is that short food supply chains have an official definition in EU regulations, as well as in many other research and official government papers across the globe.

In the EU rural development regulation (1305/2013) short food supply chains are defined as: 'a supply chain involving a limited number of economic operators, committed to cooperation, local economic development, and close geographical and social relations between producers, processors and consumers.”3 Essentially, they focus on limiting the number of intermediaries in the supply chain rather than simply the geographical distance.

SFSCs also go beyond being simply ‘local’ in their nature and focus on connecting consumers to the people producing their food in several different ways - the simplest being the system of direct trade, either by individuals or collectives, for example, at a local farmers market.4

Are there benefits to local food systems or short food supply chains? 

Given the similarities between both approaches, they share some common benefits - from social to economic and environmental. 

Social

Social benefits can include closer interactions and connections between consumers and producers, which can build trust and relationships. This closer sense of connectedness to food systems, origins and suppliers also helps to create a greater sense of community that gives us as consumers more ‘buy-in’ to the processes, products and people we support through our choices. On top of this, localised and short food supply chain schemes offer a knowledge increase for consumers that could lead to behavioural changes that filter into daily life. As we consumers gain new knowledge, it can empower us to make more educated decisions to support sustainable producers or practices - even outside of our own food communities.4

Economic

The economic benefits centre around rural development and (rural) economic regeneration. Local food systems and SFSC offer new employment opportunities, greater infrastructure and increase the demand for local services. In an SFSC, farmers and producers can put a ‘premium’ on their product, as well as cut out extra intermediaries, which can both lead to an increase in income.4 Farmers markets or other local markets can also promote business for retailers surrounding the markets, driving people to explore regions that are less visited.4

Environmental

Although environmental benefits are relatively clear, they are much harder to pinpoint. The environmental impact or benefits depend on how the local food system is defined. There are certain indicators related to environmental benefits. A geographically defined ‘local’ system can reduce GHGs related to transport distances, and if the system is seasonal, it can reduce GHG emissions associated with storage. If the food production within the system is based on sustainable practices, benefits can also include reduced pesticide use, reduced soil degradation, reduced water use and many more. 4

The biggest issue with identifying the environmental benefits and comparing ‘local’ food systems to ‘non-local’ is that the products are rarely followed from farm to fork. Lifecycle analyses are often stopped at the point of retail. Therefore, comparisons are hard and interpreting the results is not always easy. 4

Nevertheless, buying local - whatever that might mean for you - and taking part in short food supply chains can be a good first step to having a positive impact on our planet and the people involved in our food system. 

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