Food In Canada

Study shows “local” is often in the eye of the beholder

By Nicole Yada   

Food Trends Fruit & Vegetables consumer survey

Guelph survey reveals Canadians' thoughts about local food

Guelph, Ont. – Growing awareness about the environmental impact of global consumption patterns has resulted in consumer demand for sustainable alternatives. Activities that were previously not given a second thought are now given just that. Buying local food has quickly become a way consumers are trying to do their part to both lower their ecological footprint and support local agriculture in the face of globalization.

Despite the popularity of the term, “local food” is largely open to interpretation. The jury is still out on whether local food actually has less of an impact on the environment, and unlike organic food for example, there is no standardized definition of “local.”

To get a better understanding of consumer perceptions of local food, the Canadian Consumer Monitor surveyed 4,189 consumers across the country about this very concept. Involved in the panel were project leader Prof. Spencer Henson and project co-ordinator Dr. Julio Mendoza at Ontario’s University of Guelph, along with Bev Holmes and Drs. Steven Dukeshire and Oliver Masakure.

“Local” is open to interpretation


The preliminary results from the survey confirm that local food means different things to different people. When asked where food can be grown/produced while still being considered local, 55 per cent of consumers said local food refers to that which comes from anywhere within their own province. A third of those surveyed said local refers to food coming from their own region/county or nearby region/county, while 11 per cent had a much broader definition, and said local refers to food grown/produced anywhere within Canada. Similar patterns of responses are reported in other studies in the U.S. and the U.K.

With the broad size range of regions and provinces, these designations can have vastly different implications for the distances that food is traveling. The book “The 100 Mile Diet” popularized the importance of using distance (rather than just location) as a barometer for defining local. However, such a concept is often contested as being an arbitrary parameter that simply sounds good, without the scientific grounds to back it up.

Consumer Monitor panelists were asked to state the furthest distance food could travel during distribution and still be considered local. The most frequently given responses were between 100 km and 199 km (31 per cent of consumers), 200 km to 299 km (19 per cent) and less than 100 km (17 per cent).

Does farm size matter?

The majority of consumers disagreed with the statements, “It [local food] must NOT be grown on a big commercial [factory] farm” and “it must be grown on a small or medium-sized farm.” Together, this disagreement shows that for most consumers, farm size is not integral to defining local food.

In addition, a majority of consumers said they were not opposed to local food coming from big box stores or supermarkets. Combined with the finding that 70 per cent of consumers buy their produce at supermarkets, these results have important implications for the ability of supermarkets to support local agriculture while appealing to this growing consumer demand.

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Nicole Yada is with the Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics department at the University of Guelph. For more information on the study contact her at

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