Environment / Site Contribution The Conversation. Is buying shorts better for the environment?

If it has always existed, the sale of food products in local short circuits has experienced a certain boom during the last fifteen years, driven by consumers looking for references and social links in a globalized economy.

“Peasant baskets”, AMAP, sale on the farm or at farmers markets … all these methods of marketing food products refer to the name of “short local food chains”.

These circuits aim to bring the producer closer to the consumer: either at an economic and social level, through direct sales or with a maximum intermediary between the producer and the consumer (“short circuits”); or geographically, with a reasonable distance between the place of production and the place of consumption (“proximity circuits”), variable depending on the place and the products of about thirty to one hundred kilometers.

Honey, vegetables, fruits and wine.

In 2010, 107,000 farmers, or 21% of French farms, sold part of their production in short circuits (but not always locally), with strong regional disparities (2/3 of farmers in Corsica, 1/3 in PACA). These farms are smaller than average, with a great need for labor. Short-circuit marketing affects all sectors, first honey and vegetables (50% of farms involved), then fruit and wine (25% of farms) and finally animal products (10%) .

On the consumer side, around 30% of consumers shop regularly (at least once a month) in a “specialized” short-circuit, which would represent 7-10% of food purchases in France. The number of outlets is increasing: in 2014-2015, there are 600 to 1200 farmers markets, 1600 AMAP, 650 beehives, 250 farmers stores.

Despite the development of these distribution methods in terms of diversity and number of points of sale, the quantities sold through this medium vary little. In 2014, 65.5% of sales of food products were still made in general supermarkets, which mainly sell “long” circuits. However, in response to consumer demands, supermarkets are also developing the marketing of certain products in short and local circuits.

What environmental benefits?

For many consumers, buying locally produced food directly from the market is necessarily better for the environment. However, the modes and practices of production are much more determining in terms of environmental balance than the mode of distribution or the distance between producer and consumer.

To date, the studies carried out reveal the great diversity of circuits and practices and the impossibility of generalizing about their direct environmental impacts. However, once optimized and under certain conditions, local short circuits have significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement are identified and listed in a recently published opinion by Ademe, the main lessons of which we return to here.

Produce locally, yes, but sustainable and seasonal

The location of production in consumption areas has several advantages at an environmental level, but it does not guarantee the sustainability of the production system and agricultural practices. However, we can observe a significantly higher exploitation rate in organic farming among those who market in short circuit (10%), than among those who exclusively market in long circuit (2%).

Maintaining a dynamic peri-urban agriculture can also help limit urban sprawl and thus preserve the quality of often fertile soils.

Finally, the search for a certain food autonomy ensures supply, maintains the local economy and avoids the relocation of environmental impacts.

But these virtuous aspects will be undermined if the seasonality of the products is not taken into account. Because food produced locally but “out of season” (in a heated greenhouse, for example) can consume more energy and emit more greenhouse gases than products imported from countries where they are grown outdoors; and this even including transportation.

For example, a salad grown in Germany in a greenhouse in winter will have a balance in terms of CO2 emitted (from production to consumption) that is twice as high as the same vegetable imported from Spain, where it is grown outdoors. air (510 gr CO₂ eq / salad versus 240gr CO₂ eq / salad).

Logistics organization, the surveillance point

While in the context of local circuits, products travel a shorter distance, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions linked to transport are not, however, systematically lower, when you reduce them to the kilogram of product transported .

In fact, emissions per kilometer traveled and per tonne transported are approximately 10 times lower for a 32-ton heavy vehicle and 100 times lower for a transoceanic cargo ship than for a van weighing less than 3.5 tonnes.

The logistics organization is an important parameter. Large quantities, transported long distances, in an optimized way, can have a lower “greenhouse effect” per ton transported than small quantities, transported short distances but in lightly filled vans and returning empty. However, a well organized local circuit will be more efficient than long circuits!

The energy impacts and greenhouse effect of food are also closely related to the movement of consumers to buy products. Direct selling does not consistently mean less travel for the consumer, who may even have to travel more if distribution points are dispersed.

Therefore, it is necessary to organize the distribution points as close as possible to the consumer (delivery of baskets to the workplace), or even group the distribution points (in a market or collective points of sale), to present a wide offer in a single point of sale.

Less packaging and less waste

Another observed effect: in most of the local circuits, the raw material is little or not packaged at all and the packaging related to transport can be reused. The deposit for the reuse of consumer packaging is applied periodically.

The direct sale also allows a better promotion of products “out of size” or with aesthetic defects, but perfectly consumable.

On the other hand, in addition to subscription-based marketing methods, producers who sell exclusively on shorts sometimes encounter difficulties related to fluctuations in consumer demand, for example, during vacations and public holidays. The transformation of fresh products, sometimes destined for scrapping, into compotes, preserves, soups, by local structures (often associated with the social and solidarity economy), is developing and contributing to the development of transformed local products.

Regarding conservation, local circuits make it possible to limit the conservation procedures for products consumed in season (cold rooms), since the time between production / harvesting and marketing is reduced. However, long-term preservation processes (freezing, canning), if they consume energy and emit greenhouse gases (refrigerants), make it possible to limit the losses linked to the time lag between production and consumption. .

Finally, although there is no precise study on the subject, the transformation and conservation processes used in artisanal processes are generally less optimized than in agri-food industries.

Make sense of your consumption

The link with the producer modifies consumer behavior, although this aspect is more difficult to assess quantitatively. Thus, direct contact with the producer promotes knowledge of production methods and cycles, causing changes in food practices: more fresh and seasonal products, less processed products, etc.

Restoring meaning, in both production and consumption, also restores the value of food, with real potential to foster a global and sustainable evolution of the food system, including better distribution of food. economic value, willingness to pay for better quality products resulting from agroecological production methods, a relocation of food …

In conclusion, if the diversity of local short circuits does not allow to affirm that they systematically have a better environmental balance than long circuits, however, they present real opportunities to improve the sustainability of food systems. Complementary to long circuits, inserted in territorial food projects, they allow, provided that a certain number of conditions are met, to cover some of the food needs at the local level, in a responsible and environmentally friendly way.