Sustain / Climate change and nature

What do we mean by local food and why is it important? 

Peckham Street Market, credit Ruth Westcott

Peckham Street Market, credit Ruth Westcott

Food can be at the heart of policies to build community wealth and create resilient local economies. 

Growing, producing and buying food offers opportunities to build the resources, wealth and resilience of local communities, and to balance power more evenly across the supply chain. 'Resources' can include jobs, skills, capital and natural assets like soil, fish, ecosystems and water. Food production or farming methods which degrade our natural resoures undermine the opportunities for, and resilience of, communities in the future.

For these reasons, an equitable and meaningful definition of local food should consider both where food is produced and how it is produced. It should prioritise business practices that share power and wealth more equally, and ensure that local communities growing and producing food experience a fairer and more sustainable food system now and in the future.

How to do this in practice: 

Considering this richer definition of local, supporting local food doesn’t necessarily mean buying what is produced closest to you, but sourcing in a way which builds wealth, power and resources within food-producing communities. This can include: 

  1. Creating opportunities for businesses with a model that benefits the community and its workers, such as cooperatives or social enterprises. Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio offers business benefits worth $10,000 to businesses wishing to become employee-owned, for example

  1. Buying from independent business like real bread bakeries (which produce many more jobs per loaf than industrial manufacturers) 

  1. Sourcing food produced agroecologically and organically through farmer-focussed supply chains, which allow nature to thrive, support productive natural ecosystems and pay farmers a fair price for their produce 

  1. Choosing Fairtrade products which guarantee a fair price for producers, invest money in producer communities, and have high environmental standards 

  1. Support and make space for market stalls, farmers markets, and alternative retail options like box schemes and farm shops


Local authorities, educational institutions, local economic partnerships and others operating at a local policy level can support these principles in their decision making: 

  1. Food buying and procurement including catering outlets, staff dining and conferences and events: Include a specific requirement to demonstrate community wealth building benefits in contracts, including buying sustainably-produced goods and paying the living wage. Buyers should use a dynamic procurement model, making sure contracts are accessible to smaller producers and build capacity locally so new producers are able to manage the bidding process.  

  1. Business support including rates discounts, mentoring, and promotion through council channels 

  1. Preferential access to land or property, using planning policy to protect spaces where localised food enterprises thrive (including land, market spaces and storage facilities) 

  1. Investing in the infrastructure needed to support food production and primary processing in the local area 

  1. Support a diverse food system which ensures culturally-appropriate food is available to all communities 

Sustain’s report; How councils can support good food enterprises: findings from London presents a suite of ideas for how councils can build a fairer, more inclusive, healthier, sustainable, and prosperous economy after Covid-19 by supporting good food enterprises. 


Why it's important 

Using food to build local power and economic opportunity can bring a number of benefits: 

Climate change

Industrially-farmed meat and dairy and unsustainably caught fish are by far the biggest threats to our climate and global ecosystems. Taking a less-and-better approach to meat consumption, there are some considerable climate benefits to locally-focussed food systems: 

Reduced emissions from refrigerated transport, storage, and in-store refrigeration for fruit and vegetables: The complex storage and distribution phase of large retailer supply chains adds 4 - 45% (depending on the product) to the climate emissions of UK vegetables, three times higher than the emissions from the distribution phase for a small-scale box scheme.

Reduced waste: The long supply chain model for fresh produce generates a high percentage of post-farm loss, estimated at between 3 and 10% from over-ordering, grading, storing and packing loss. Research from food waste charity Feedback suggests that overall waste thanks to supermarket demands for overproduction are 10-16% 

Tackling food insecurity oversees: recent study highlighted that the UK imports much of its fruit and veg from climate stressed countries, and unless it is produced with fairtrade principles, it is likely to be produced by workers paid significantly less than a living wage; a business model which is driving inequality and creating food insecurity for these communities.  

For more information about how councils can reduce their food-related greenhouse gas emissions, see our toolkit, or Every Mouthful Counts report, or Quick Guide for Councils 

Food security

During the Covid-19, small scale agriculture appears not to have experienced the same urgent staff shortages as larger farms as they provide decent and year-round jobs compatible with family life. Investment in community connected businesses would make our food system more resilient to future shocks and less wasteful. 

During early covid-19 lockdown, perfectly edible food was wasted and milk was poured down the drain as people suddenly shifted their buying habits and supply chains could not adapt. In our work during Covid-19, Sustain learned a very different picture from smaller food businesses that, with the right support, were able to adapt to lockdown quickly with minimal waste, retaining local jobs and trading connections with farmers. 

Good jobs

There is clear evidence that diverting spend to localised food systems, with shorter supply chains, offers decent jobs, keeps food in the local economy and produces food efficiently. 


Climate change and nature: Sustain has taken a keen interest in the rapidly accumulating evidence about the effect of food and farming on climate change and nature, as scientific evidence emerges that our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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