Food Miles, Food Chains and Food Producers:

Consumer Choices in Local Markets


Randy S. Stringer and Wendy J. Umberger

*The authors are Professor and Lecturer, University of Adelaide, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine

School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, The University of Adelaide Waite Campus PMB 1 Glen Osmond, South Australia, Australia 5064,

Contact Author:  Wendy J. Umberger:

Introduction:  Food Miles versus Carbon Emissions

In North America and Europe going ‘carbon neutral,’ and becoming a ‘locavore’ are established consumer trends (Feenstra 2002).  In fact, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘locavore’ as their official Words of the Year for 2006 and 2007, respectively. The issues underpinning consumers’ motivations to adopt carbon neutral or locavore lifestyles are somewhat related, however, there are significant differences and related misperceptions between their actual definitions and their potential social benefits (Cowell and Parkinson 2006; Saunders et al. 2006).

Adopting a ‘carbon neutral’ lifestyle involves being aware of your individual carbon emissions (carbon footprint) and attempting to reduce emissions wherever possible.  This may involve purchasing or trading in carbon offsets. Individuals and businesses on every continent now pay specialised organizations to plant trees, invest in renewable power sources and finance carbon-reducing projects. Their aim is to balance out their greenhouse gas emissions by cutting the same amount of emissions elsewhere.

Efforts to lower greenhouse emissions are often linked to food miles. The locavore movement encourages food buyers to pay attention to food miles, to purchase from farmers’ markets and to grow their own food whenever possible. Locavores argue that fresh, local products are more nutritious, taste better and are better for the environment (Roosevelt 2006). In spite of emerging evidence to the contrary, many consumers consider that transportation is the major contributor to the carbon emissions embodied in the products they buy and consume. However, some researchers (e.g. Saunders et al. 2006), dispute consumers should be more concerned with the total energy used to produce and transport food from primary production to the end consumer, rather than just the food miles.

Similar, eco-friendly lifestyle ideas are gradually catching on in Australia. For example, early in 2008, the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry requested the Federal Government to adopt a national labelling system to measure the entire carbon footprint of food and household products. More recently, Woolworths and the Australian Food and Grocery Council announced plans to examine the benefits of carbon labelling. In South Australia, the state government is funding a sustainable value chain study to examine the carbon footprint associated with producing and transporting South Australian wine to London.

Australian’s have urgent reasons to become carbon-responsible: we soon will not have any choice. The EU is considering stiff tariffs or taxes on coal imports, expanding carbon emissions cap and trade programs and other related green measures. Global industry leaders are already taking things in their own hands. Tesco, the UK's biggest retailer, plans some form of carbon labelling on all the products it sells by 2012 so that shoppers can compare ‘carbon costs’ along with calories. Several other retail giants are close behind. Like it or not, the rest of the world is forcing Australia to act ‘responsibly’.

Issues Related to Adopting “Eco Friendly” Lifestyles

We are catching on none too soon. Australians each generate around 19 metric tonnes of carbon per year, making our total per capita emissions among the highest in the world, neck and neck with the USA’s emissions. French, German and Italian families are responsible for less than one-half the carbon generated by Australian families. In China, which will soon be the world’s largest emitter, each person’s annual carbon footprint is three tonnes, six times smaller than that of Australians’.

However, attempting to become carbon neutral, especially by focusing on food miles to save carbon emissions, can be misleading and distracting. It can also result in perverse outcomes. For example, a problem for consumers trying to go carbon neutral is that carbon offsets are almost impossible to track. Many businesses marketing carbon offsets, in an effort to appear eco-friendly, do not make it clear what is being offered. What are consumers actually buying? Will it really make a difference? Who will make sure that it does what it is supposed to do? And is that bottle of wine that you are about to buy already carbon neutral?

Tree planting, for example, can be beneficial if the species are appropriate for the site; monoculture plantings requiring irrigation and pesticides result in a perverse outcome, creating other environmental problems. Trees can burn down, die from drought or be logged, so such projects also need to have guarantees that someone will replace them. Projects that eliminate emissions, such as wind farms, low-emission vehicles and fuel-efficiency technologies, are more complex to run but may be more cost-effective.

Another problem is the lack of regulation. We have established regulatory regimes that control all kinds of markets from the food we eat to the stocks we invest in. Currently very little regulation of carbon markets is occurring. There is a confusing array of standards by offset companies and organizations are measuring emission reductions and systems to monitor the reductions. Buyers need to make sure that a company has credible standards and uses a qualified auditor to check the results.

Likewise, the concept of food miles can be confusing and deceptive. Counting food miles really provides only one piece of information for consumers: how far the final product travelled. It tells us nothing about where the fertilizers or seeds or equipment came from or how the landscape was managed, whether biodiversity was lost, the soil was eroded, the water was polluted or whether salinity was increased.

As mentioned above, food travelling thousands of miles can emit much less carbon than local food that has been refrigerated for months before it is sold. For example, a recent study found that dairy and sheep meat products produced in New Zealand and exported to the UK are significantly more energy efficient than similar products produced domestically in the UK (Saunders et al. 2006). Often, it is how consumers prepare and cook the food they buy that accounts for a large portion of the product’s life cycle carbon emissions. In fact, the food miles concept is a bit disconcerting to most Australian producers who depend on export markets in Asia, Europe and North America to sustain their businesses and support their rural communities.

Carbon emissions and food miles are issues adding to the growing interest in the social and environmental benefits of local food supply systems (Cowel and Parkinson 2003; Pretty et al. 2005; Winter 2003).  Guthrie et al. (2006) refer to a ‘real food revolution’ where consumers are shifting away from artificial and processed foods and demanding food with unusual or artisan attributes, signalling the importance of food attributes other than price and quality.

Food safety and environmental issues as well as ethical motivations are reasons some consumers are more concerned about the production processes used to produce their food (Umberger et al. 2008).  The demand for food products labelled or certified to contain attributes such as “organic,” “free-range,” “certified humane,” “environmentally friendly,” and “local” is growing (Codron et al. 2006; Umberger 2007). These are termed credence attributes because consumers cannot verify their existence before, during or after consumption. Thus, verification, certification and labeling systems are required for verification of credence attributes in food.

Consumers’ Concerns: Evidence from an Australian Farmers Market (FM)

Formal farmers markets are relatively new in Australia. At present, about 70 farmers markets operate across the country. More than one-half are only a few years old, suggesting interest and strong growth on the part of both Australian producers and consumers (Coster and Kennon 2005). Proponents of farmers markets argue that these types of direct to consumer markets allow producer interactions, providing consumers with improved knowledge and appreciation of the agricultural processes used to grow their foods and resulting in increased confidence, greater awareness in the food production systems, and more efficient purchases (Guthrie et al. 2006).

Additionally, studies have shown FM also have broad societal and environmental benefits such as promoting healthy eating, revitalizing communities, preserving farmland, promoting sustainable agriculture, increasing market access and profitability of smaller independent producers, reducing packaging and ‘food miles’ (Coster and Kennon 2005; Kirwan 2004; LaTrobe 2001; Payet et al. 2005).

To better understand the relative importance of food attributes in local food chains, Umberger et al (2008) surveyed 416 shoppers at a large farmers market located in Adelaide, the Adelaide Showgrounds Farmers Market (ASFM), to explore their purchasing behaviour towards food products. The study examined respondents’ concerns related to food miles and carbon emissions in food systems, their interest in supporting a policy which would cover the costs of mandatory food labelling, and their belief whether or not the government should provide assistance to farmers’ market to encourage their growth and sustainability. One aim of the study was to determine the characteristics of consumers who are most likely to desire specific policies and government intervention to support local producers.

The shopper profile emerging from the survey suggests that the ASFM is a very important source of food for the respondents.  Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and bread were frequently purchased items by a large majority of the respondents: 86.3%, 76.8% and 59.3%, respectively. Roughly 70% of consumers purchased the majority of their fruits and vegetables at farmers markets (Figure 1).

Figure 1 ASFM Consumers’ Primary Purchase Location of Food Products










When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with 15 statements regarding why they attend the ASFM, more than 50% of consumers indicated they “strongly agreed” with statements that they shop at the ASFM to support local farmers, to support the rural economy, to support independent farmers versus corporate agriculture, and they believe the products are fresher. Other reasons included beliefs that ASFM products taste better, are of higher quality and more confidence in the source of food received a large percent of agreement, with mean ratings above “agree”. 

The survey respondents used a five-point Likert scale to rank the importance of 16 attributes that may appear on food product labels.  Information related to Country-of-Origin, No Growth Hormones Used, Free Range, Animals Treated Humanely and Environmentally-friendly were the five most important attributes, considering mean ratings (see Figure 2).  Bio-Dynamic, Food Miles and Carbon Labelled were rated as the least important information. It could be that consumers were unfamiliar with these terms and did not know what they meant.

Figure 2 The Relative Importance of Various Food Attributes to ASFM Consumers

To better understand the issues which people were most concerned with, consumers were asked to state what they felt were the most serious threats to agricultural producers and to consumers in Australia. Particularly, people were asked to rank what in their opinion were the top three threats to agricultural producers in Australia.  Respondents indicated that they felt that environmental issues (drought, arable soil, salinity) posed the greatest threat to Australian producers followed by market concentration (too much power held by too few food retailers resulting in low prices for farmers). Too many regulations (restrictions that inhibit production and innovation), too few regulations (farmers are not accountable), and market entry barriers (it is too costly or too competitive for farmers to survive) were overall seen as far less threatening.

Respondents were also asked to indicate, the top threats facing consumers with respect to the Australian food system. Here respondents indicated concerns over food retail market concentration (too much power held by too few resulting in higher prices for consumers) and agriculturally-related environmental issues (overuse of pesticides, hormones etc). Threats such as too much product information (too much information, information is too confusing to understand), not enough product information (not enough information on production methods to make educated decisions), food standards (inconsistency, lack of regulation and oversight) and safety of food system (diseases, pathogens, bacteria etc) were seen as less threatening.

Consumers’ concerns over the effect of market concentration on both producers’ and consumers’ welfare are also reflected in their preferred food retail choice.  Respondents indicated that the most important factors influencing where they buy food are: first, superior products; second, supporting local producers; and third, store cleanliness. The store’s reputation, the speed of service and opportunities to socialize were the three factors which had least influence on shopping location (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  Factors influencing Consumers’ Preferred Shopping Location for Food




The ASFM survey data suggest that consumers place a relatively high value on supporting local producers by purchasing local produce and by seeking food retail outlets that supply local produce. However, consumers are not focused on the food miles issue per se. Rather, consumers appear to consider food retail market concentration to be a threat to local producers’ livelihood, which in turn may negatively affect consumers. In addition, ASFM consumers are focused on a range of local environmental concerns, notably water scarcity and salinity.

The study results suggest a diverse set of indirect environmental, social and economic relationships between consumers of local food produce. These indirect relationships are not well understood, are seldom analyzed in the context of local food supply chain development, and are rarely reflected in local policy formulation. The survey results present a case for exploring further the additional public and private benefits from supporting local agriculture.


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