The complexity of eating locally

May 26th 2014

Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson

The composition of our diet has always changed, as has how we define local cuisine. Perhaps the most significant change came about after 1492. Columbus discovered America and so began some of the biggest changes to our diet. Before then we did not have chocolate, tomatoes, chilli or potatoes in Europe, all which are – depending on who you talk to – key parts of our diet today. Imagine the British without chips, the Italians without tomatoes and no chocolate brownies. A similar transformation has happened with our understanding of what makes up ‘local’. In 1492 it was our piece of land and village; since then it has expanded to towns, cities and regions. Now the concept has different meanings and connotations depending on who you talk to.

First of all, there’s an assumption that is local is better. Many people think food miles and imported food are worse for the environment than local produce. This claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in many cases. It’s possible to import something that has a lower impact and more social benefit than non-native or out-of-season crops grown locally.

Sometimes we’re very selective when speaking about local food. I know of people who condemn polytunnels as a blot on the landscape from a farmer who doesn’t care what they do to our rural environment. While in the next sentence they praise the locally grown soft fruit and how good it is to support the wonderful farmer who grows them. Near me they are one and the same farmer.

And, sometimes a local product – reared and harvested in your immediate area – might not be in line with your values; though by seeing the term ‘local’ you might assume it is. Near me there’s a huge chicken factory farm which markets its girls as locally produced meat. I’m not sure people picture a shed full of broilers when they see the bird labelled as ‘local’.

We also need to think about what we mean by ‘local’. It’s often confused with seasonal, something which doesn’t really work when you dig down into it. I was recently in my local green grocer in the middle of one of the most middle-class towns in the UK: Godalming. It’s a great independent shop and the gent who runs it is really friendly. All year round you can get potatoes, apples, figs, avocados, asparagus, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbages, the list goes on. The gent who runs it readily admits his stock can come from anywhere and he buys what is available on the market. On countless occasions I’ve heard people walk on and compliment him on the quality of his produce, it really is excellent. They often follow this with how good it is to have an independent green grocer – it is – and good to buy local seasonal food. This is the problem; the assumption made is that because it’s a local shop the produce is local and possibly also seasonal. For the majority of the year this is not the case. It is good to have a local green grocer and I love going there, we just need to be aware that just because it’s an independent shop, its stock is not grown by a small local farmer.

Finally, ‘local’ can refer to a local farmer or shop and we should support them – although they might not produce or sell local crops. But, ‘local’ can also refer to a product, like a pie that is only finished locally. I know a pie man who’ll make you a chicken, wild mushroom and asparagus pie all year round. The chicken is from Thailand, the asparagus Peruvian and who knows where the mushrooms originate. The pie is only finished in Sussex, yet it’s labelled as a local food and people pay the associated premium. I have a feeling though, that customers assume the whole things is local and benefits local farmers and the surrounding community. This is simply not true.

We need to be more nuanced in our approach. Like everything food related broad sweeping statements don’t work. Local can be great and of course we should support the local movement. But, let’s be clear about what we mean about ‘local’. It’s part of the solution to the problems caused by our current consumption trend, but I don’t think it’s the silver bullet some people claim it is.

At the end of the day, I love local and I love global, seasonal produce. I love coffee and bananas. If I want peas or spinach or berries in winter – and I feel they must be from the UK – I head to the freezer. It is possible to have a varied diet with food from across the world and still eat sustainably.

To achieve this, I think we should start by cooking and eating whole foods. Then if we have the time, identify its origin, how it is reared and grown. Finally, we can look at whether it’s seasonal and where it’s produced.

One step at a time.

Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK

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