Knowledge for better food systems

Comparing the sustainability of local and global food products in Europe

Photo credit: Maryland GovPics, Buy Local, Flickr, Creative Commons Licence 2.0

This paper examines the common assumption that local foods are more sustainable than foods sourced from more distant locations. Using the multi-criteria decision aid method (MCDA), which allows for multi-dimensional criteria to be assessed, this paper answers the following research question: “how do selected local or global food products compare and which rank first in terms of sustainability performance?”. 

Using case studies of different cheeses, hams, breads and wines, 14 processed foods were compared along a local-global continuum. Each of the foods were analysed across five dimensions (environmental, economic, social, health and ethics – the latter only focusing on animal welfare). The degree of localness of a product was then compared to its sustainability.

It was shown that the strength of local and intermediary products (products between local and global on the continuum) were in the health (presenting nutritional benefits) and socio-economic dimensions, whereas global food products were strongest on climate change mitigation and affordability to consumers, the former in contrast with popular assumptions that local foods have lower climate impacts. Therefore, this paper ultimately argues that distance is not the most critical factor for food sustainability improvement.

Even though most global products consistently appeared last in the rankings, the paper points out that this should not detract from the fact that global foods present at least two benefits: lower prices and lower GHG emissions. The paper concludes that global products are important to sustainability, and therefore that embracing the “local is best” doctrine is not necessarily recommended. Ultimately, this paper recommends that food miles should be seen just as one aspect of sustainability.


In the debate surrounding the sustainable future of food, claims like “buy local” are widespread in publications and the media, supported by the discourse that buying “local food” provides ecological, health and socio-economic benefits. Recognising the lack of scientific evidence for this claim, this paper aims to compare the results of sustainability assessments for 14 local and global food products in four sectors within four European countries. Each sector has been analysed independently using sustainability indicators across five dimensions of sustainability: environmental, economic, social, health and ethics. In order to determine if local products generally perform better, an outranking analysis was conducted to rank the products relative to their sustainability performance. Outranking is a multi-criteria decision aid method that allows comparison of alternatives based on quantitative and qualitative indicators at different scales. Each product is also characterized by a degree of localness in order to relate sustainability and localness. The results are given in the form of phi flows, which are relative preference scores of one product compared to other ones in the same sector. The rankings showed that global products consistently come last in terms of sustainability, even when the preference functions and weighting of the indicators were varied. The first positions of the rankings were taken either by the most local or an intermediary product. Moreover, detailed rankings at the attribute level showed the relative strengths and weaknesses of each food product along the local-global continuum. It appeared that the strength of local and intermediary products was mainly in health and socio-economic dimensions, particularly aspects of care and links to the territory such as biodiversity, animal welfare, governance or resilience. In relation to global food products, they presented substantial advantages in terms of climate change mitigation and affordability to consumers. This contrasts with the food-miles ecological claim. Thus, we conclude that distance is not the most critical factor in improving sustainability of food products, and that other criteria of localness (identity, governance or size) play a more critical role.


Schmitt, E., Galli, F., Menozzi, D., Maye, D., Touzard, J.M., Marescotti, A., Six, J. and Brunori, G., 2017. Comparing the sustainability of local and global food products in Europe. Journal of Cleaner Production.

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Europe is the world's second-smallest continent by surface area, covering just over 10 million square kilometres or 6.8% of the global land area, but it is the third-most populous continent after Asia and Africa, with a population of around 740 million people or about 11% of the world's population. Its climate is heavily affected by warm Atlantic currents that temper winters and summers on much of the continent. In the European Union, farmers represent only 4.7% of the working population, yet manage nearly half of its land area.

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