Local vs Global: What Crops Have a Lower Footprint in South Western BC?
About This Brief
This research brief was prepared by the BC Food Web team, based on an article published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.
As concern around environmental impacts, food security, and long-term sustainability grows within our society, many people have begun to argue for the benefits of a more local food system, but currently evidence for this is lacking. This study seeks to fill that gap and provide a more holistic investigation of the local versus global debate, beyond just one factor such as greenhouse gas emissions. The study challenges the notion that local food systems are necessarily more environmentally sustainable by analyzing the actual resource footprint of a British Columbia-based food system. By comparing the respective water, carbon, land, and ecological footprints of both a local and a global food system, this study reveals the local or global advantage of dozens of crops.
Researchers focused on south western British Columbia’s agricultural region over a single year (2011). This study considered 59 separate agricultural products or crops.
Each crop was assessed for four different ‘footprints’ - the effects a person or activity may have on a specific aspect of the environment:
- The land footprint: amount of agricultural land needed.
- The carbon footprint: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane emissions that were released at any point along the commodity chain.
- The ecological footprint: a combination of the land footprint and the carbon dioxide aspect of the carbon footprint.
- The water footprint: combined precipitation and irrigation data.
The study found that only a handful of locally-grown crops are more environmentally sustainable in all categories than their global counterparts. Six crops analyzed had a local advantage in all footprints and 13 had no local advantage at all. The remaining crops had a range of significant, partial, or one footprint local advantage. The results also illustrated that local production was not able to meet demand for products, further creating reliance on imported goods. Of products that were produced locally, 53 per cent showed no local advantage at all, demonstrating that importing these goods would actually be more environmentally sustainable from a footprint perspective.
Southwestern British Columbia is heavily reliant on imported products, with only 35 percent of the food consumed in the region actually grown there. However, many imported foods are actually more sustainable than their locally grown counterparts from a footprint perspective and many locally grown foods show no or only partial local advantage. Currently, consumers tend to favour foods with no local advantage, making local production less sustainable than imports according to the study’s four footprints. The overall analysis revealed the need for 2 million hectares and 3 billion m3 of water to meet local demand. If this demand were to be met with the current conditions in south western British Columbia, 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide would be generated.
Local Advantage by Crop (Table 1)
+ = local advantage
- = import advantage
This study challenges the idea that local food systems are inherently more sustainable than their global counterparts. The local food system could become more sustainable if there was a holistic consideration as to how each product grown affects the local footprints and whether importing them would mitigate harmful effects. Consumer demand would have to change in order for an environmentally sustainable shift to a local food system.
However, while the local food system may not be sustainable from an environmental footprint perspective, the authors of this study acknowledge that there are other considerations for the feasibility and success of a local food system, including economic, social, or ecological ones. This study illustrates that a stable and feasible sustainable local food system will require holistic approaches that combine several different perspectives and strategies.
About This Research
This brief is based on the following journal article:
Kissinger, M., Sussmann, C., Dorward, C., & Mullinix, K. (2019). Local or global: A biophysical analysis of a regional food system. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 34(6), 523-533. doi:10.1017/S1742170518000078
- Local production is unable to meet local demand.
- Many crops have fewer harmful environmental impacts if imported globally than if grown locally, illustrating that local food systems may not be as sustainable as their global counterparts within the current agricultural model.
- Consumer demand shows preference for products with no environmental advantages if grown locally compared to imported products.
- A holistic consideration of the footprint of different crops could make the local food system more sustainable.