'Buying local not always sustainable,' says food critic Jay Rayner

Gurjit Degun
6 October 2014

Buying local does not always guarantee a lower carbon footprint when it comes to food, according to critic Jay Rayner.

Closing the CIPS Annual Conference in London last week, Rayner took delegates through a journey on how buying local and seasonal produce and favouring small businesses, does not always equal sustainability.

He drew up the pros and cons of supermarkets, explaining not all big retailers are “evil” because they stock a wide variety of produce, and economies of scale has meant consumers now spend a significantly smaller amount of their salary on food than in the past. But, he warned, as supermarkets buy food abroad at cheaper prices, it has meant Britain has become less self-sufficient which could mean a threat from rising middle-class demand in Asia.

“At the beginning of the century, 14 per cent of the world’s middle classes were in Asia, by 2050 68 per cent will be there," Rayner said. "They are shopping in India and China. These newly emerging middle classes are insisting on eating like us.

“We are used to abundance on our shelves. The Chinese are now in a position to pay the same or even more for apples than the British supermarkets. We live in a commodified world.”

He also said a lot more needs to be done about sustainability, and encouraged consumers to watch out for language used by supermarkets. “We love to mythologise agriculture,” said Rayner. “The retailers know this and play to it. The Marks & Spencer Oakham chicken sounds rural, but there are no Marks & Spencer Oakham chickens, it’s just a trademark, they’re raised in sheds like everyone else’s.

“There is a belief that small is sustainable but it’s not true. If you have a 10-acre farm you’ll need one tractor to farm it. If, however, you have a 100-acre farm you’ll need one tractor to farm it.”

Rayner pointed to food miles too, which he believes that consumers have been “sold a lie”. He said imported New Zealand lamb has a lower carbon footprint than those reared in Britain. “You can’t just assume that because it’s from abroad, it has a higher carbon footprint,” said Rayner.

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