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Open AccessArticle

Are Local Food Chains More Sustainable than Global Food Chains? Considerations for Assessment

Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment, University of Pisa, 56124 Pisa, Italy
Sustainable Agroecosystems Group, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich ETH, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland
Rural Sociology Group, Wageningen University, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands
Fondazione Italiana per la Ricerca in Agricoltura Biologica e Biodinamica, 00153 Roma, Italy
Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), 08010 Barcelona, Spain
Spain and Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, 08193 Bellaterra, Spain
Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham GL50 2RH, UK
Centre for Food Policy, City University, London EC1V 0HB, UK
Division of Bioeconomics, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, KU Leuven, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Centro Ricerche Produzioni Animali S.p.A.—C.R.P.A. S.p.A., 42121 Reggio Emilia, Italy
Centre for Agriculture and Environment Foundation (CLM), 4104 BA Culemborg, The Netherlands
Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade, 11000 Belgrade, Serbia
Baltic Studies Centre, LV1014 Riga, Latvia
Inra, UMR Innovation, 34060 Montpellier, France
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Iain Gordon
Sustainability 2016, 8(5), 449;
Received: 10 March 2016 / Revised: 25 April 2016 / Accepted: 2 May 2016 / Published: 6 May 2016
This paper summarizes the main findings of the GLAMUR project which starts with an apparently simple question: is “local” more sustainable than “global”? Sustainability assessment is framed within a post-normal science perspective, advocating the integration of public deliberation and scientific research. The assessment spans 39 local, intermediate and global supply chain case studies across different commodities and countries. Assessment criteria cover environmental, economic, social, health and ethical sustainability dimensions. A closer view of the food system demonstrates a highly dynamic local–global continuum where actors, while adapting to a changing environment, establish multiple relations and animate several chain configurations. The evidence suggests caution when comparing “local” and “global” chains, especially when using the outcomes of the comparison in decision-making. Supply chains are analytical constructs that necessarily—and arbitrarily—are confined by system boundaries, isolating a set of elements from an interconnected whole. Even consolidated approaches, such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), assess only a part of sustainability attributes, and the interpretation may be controversial. Many sustainability attributes are not yet measurable and “hard” methodologies need to be complemented by “soft” methodologies which are at least able to identify critical issues and trade-offs. Aware of these limitations, our research shows that comparing local and global chains, with the necessary caution, can help overcome a priori positions that so far have characterized the debate between “localists” and “globalists”. At firm level, comparison between “local” and “global” chains could be useful to identify best practices, benchmarks, critical points, and errors to avoid. As sustainability is not a status to achieve, but a never-ending process, comparison and deliberation can be the basis of a “reflexive governance” of food chains. View Full-Text
Keywords: local; global; food supply chain; sustainability; assessment; reflexive governance; post-normal science local; global; food supply chain; sustainability; assessment; reflexive governance; post-normal science
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Brunori, G.; Galli, F.; Barjolle, D.; Van Broekhuizen, R.; Colombo, L.; Giampietro, M.; Kirwan, J.; Lang, T.; Mathijs, E.; Maye, D.; De Roest, K.; Rougoor, C.; Schwarz, J.; Schmitt, E.; Smith, J.; Stojanovic, Z.; Tisenkopfs, T.; Touzard, J.-M. Are Local Food Chains More Sustainable than Global Food Chains? Considerations for Assessment. Sustainability 2016, 8, 449.

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