Phillip Lancaster, PhD
BCI Nutritionist

Buying local is often touted as being more sustainable, but any improvement in environmental or economic sustainability is highly dependent upon the food product and where you are located. Many food products do not grow well in certain parts of the country. For example, it would be difficult to grow oranges anywhere in the U.S. except southern Florida, Texas, and California. Many of our food production systems revolve around the differences in climate across the U.S. that are optimal for efficient production. In beef industry, cow-calf operations are found in all 50 states because the predominate feed in this sector, grass, grows in all 50 states. However, the growing and finishing operations are concentrated in about 10 states in the center of the U.S., because the majority of feed in this sector, grains and byproducts, grow best in this region of the country. Additionally, the climate in the center of the country is optimal for efficient cattle growth, and efficiency is important for environmental and economic sustainability. Growing and finishing cattle in other regions of the country result in greater environmental impact.

The product being purchased impacts the transportation costs and the carbon emissions from fuel. Estimates of fuel usage and carbon emissions for buying eggs from a local farm are 50 to 60 times greater than buying from a local grocery store. The fuel usage per dozen eggs is significantly increased when the farmer brings a few dozen eggs to the local farmers market each week or each individual consumer travels to the farm each week to buy 1 dozen eggs compared to a semitruck delivery of 23,400 dozen eggs to the grocery store. Contrast that with buying beef locally where the consumer travels once per year to purchase a whole carcass for their freezer. The impact of transportation is much less in the beef scenario than in the egg scenario because the consumer is purchasing so much more food product with each trip, emphasizing the importance of efficiency as pounds of food product per gallon of fuel used.

Another touted benefit of buying local is more money goes to the farmer, but again the impact depends upon the food product being purchased (Figure 1). Purchasing locally produced bread would significantly increase the food dollar going to the farmer, where as purchasing a gallon of milk locally will have less of an impact on the farmer’s share of the food dollar. The difference between the farm share for bread versus milk has to do with the amount of further processing from the raw commodity to the final product. Wheat requires a lot of further processing to produce bread, which results in lots of additional costs that must be accounted for in the price of bread, whereas milk requires little further processing and minimal additional costs. Thus, it is the costs of further processing that really drive the farm share, and so the farmer’s share of the food dollar depends upon how much of the further processing was performed by the farmer.

Figure 1. Retail price, farm value, and farm share for various retail food products in 2019.