There is a lot of talk about eating local and seasonal food, but what are the true benefits, and which is best? Is it all good? Here we look at the pros and cons of these two options, and how we can make sustainable choices whilst still enjoying eating what we want to eat.

Local produce

Eating locally can be defined in several ways. It can mean eating food produced from the town or region in which you live, up to eating food produced in the country you live in.

The pros!

  1. Reduced food miles – Local means less transport, less refrigeration and lower emissions
  2. Supporting local economies, employment, and rural development – Eating local produce helps strengthen communities, particularly those in more remote and rural areas, leading to more self-sufficient and resilient food networks. The supply chain is shorter, farmers get a better return for their efforts, and less of your money is lost to the middle-men!
  3. Fresher, tastier, healthier produce – Less transport means fewer preservatives are needed to protect and extend the life of produce. Plus, fruit and vegetables lose their nutritional value over time, so the sooner they reach your plate the better.

The cons….

  1. Increased inputs – To produce enough local food all year round, or to increase variety, more inputs are often needed. These include the energy to power glasshouses, water to irrigate the land, and chemicals to protect crops. If livestock is being raised for meat or dairy, where their feed comes from also needs to be considered.
  2. Risk of food insecurity and malnutrition – In many regions, local food production is difficult, e.g. due to climate, land condition, or disease pressure, and the risk of crop failures can be high. If relying on local produce, this can lead to a shortage of food supplies, or limit the nutritional value of diets. Animal health and welfare can also be compromised if there are feed or water shortages.
  3. Reduced variety – True local produce should focus on native food types and varieties that are adapted to the local climate and land characteristics of where they are grown. This reduces the risk of crop failure. However, it also limits the variety of foods available and regions are likely to become more reliant on limited food groups. Some regions might focus their production specifically on vegetables or fruit, whilst other regions unsuitable for crop production may be abundant in meat and dairy products.

Seasonal produce

Seasonality of food refers to the times of the year when a given type of food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or its flavour. This is usually when the product is cheapest and freshest on the market.

The pros!

  1. Minimal inputs – Products grown in season (for example, British strawberries during the summer months, and root vegetables in the autumn) require fewer inputs (such as energy, water and fertiliser).
  1. Varied diet throughout the year – By only growing what is in season, the available produce varies throughout the year and tends to complement the weather conditions – e.g. salads and berries during the summer months, with potatoes and root vegetables perfect for winter stews and casseroles during the colder months.
  2. Strengthens economies – There are often surpluses associated with seasonal produce. These can be sold to strengthen the economy, or preserved (by freezing, or producing jams and chutneys, etc.) for use out of season.

The cons…

  1. Increased food miles – If you want to eat only seasonal produce, you could end up increasing your food miles by eating imported food. For instance, lamb is a very seasonal product, being readily available from February to June in the UK. Trade of lamb between the UK and New Zealand allows for a year-round supply. There are numerous cases where this applies to other products too, particularly fruit.
  2. Food shortages – At certain times of the year, there could be food shortages, or shortages of a particular product, especially if preservation is not possible. This could lead to malnutrition or price fluctuations.
  3. Increased energy use – For the majority of products, glasshouses are required for out of season production – these require large energy inputs. Surplus produce can be preserved for out of season consumption, but the processes required to do this (such as canning and freezing) can be energy-consuming.

So what’s the best option?

Well, ideally we would be eating local produce that is in season to have the greatest benefit on environmental sustainability. However, in reality, this can be very difficult and can have negative effects on other aspects – such as your finances (farmers’ markets, butchers and farm shops can be more expensive or difficult to reach) and your health (if you don’t live in an area that can produce enough food or variety of food to meet your nutritional requirements).

We have become very complacent in being able to go to the supermarket and find whatever food we feel like, at any time of the year, without considering where it is from, how it was produced, or its true nutritional value. Eating is a pleasure for many people, and experiencing new and exotic flavours is an important part of their gastronomic satisfaction.

The answer?

As with everything, balance is key. Here are our top tips to start incorporating local and seasonal eating habits into your daily diet:

  1. Buy local, seasonal produce when possible. Visit your local farmer’s markets, butchers and farm shops. Alternatively, look for box-schemes that deliver local, seasonal produce to your home or place of work.
  2. Number 1. can be time-consuming, and often difficult for those on tight budgets. If you need to shop at the supermarket, try and look at where your produce has come from. If you are in the UK, buy British when you can. But also do some research – what is currently in season and where? There are lots of seasonal produce guides available online, such as this one from the BBC for the UK.
  3. Consider buying frozen fruit and vegetables! These are produced in season and frozen within hours of being picked, so minimal nutritional value is lost! This also cuts down on food waste, as surplus production can be saved.

About the Sustainable Food and Farming team

The ADAS Sustainable Food and Farming team help clients to address their sustainability challenges.

Our agricultural background means we’re equally at home meeting face-to-face with farmers as we are engaging with senior management in global food and drink businesses.

This gives us the unique ability to work across all stages of the supply chain. For more information on improving sustainability within your supply chain, please contact Sarah Wynn.