Local food systems and social metabolism


This web was created within the project Quest for sustainable food production: Social and financial metabolism of selected local food systems supported by the Czech Science Foundation (GP13-38994P).

The aim of the project was to look for more sustainable ways of food production. In practice, I was investigating the functioning of three selected local organic farms (2 in the Czech Republic and 1 in Slovakia) using the methodology of, so called, social metabolism – a research methodology looking at energy and material flows within a specific socio-economic system. This approach can be applied on different levels, from a household, enterprise of a farm (as in this case) to a municipality, metropolitan area and a state, or even the global system as a whole.

The assessment of material and energy flows was accompanied by research on local monetary flows, using the specific methodology of local multiplier. To learn more about both these methods, please see the respective sections of social metabolism and local multiplier.

This web wants to introduce the above-mentioned methodologies (social metabolism and local multiplier) and make them potentially available to other researchers and general public, and to present the results of the project in terms of publications and related materials.

About the project

This web was created within the project Quest for sustainable food production: Social and financial metabolism of selected local food systems supported by the Czech Science Foundation (GP13-38994P). This project was formally realized between 2013 and 2016, however, the web will provide up-to-date information on the topics of (more) sustainable food production, local food systems, and the methodological approaches of social metabolism and local multiplier continuously, even after the official end of the project period.

The aims of the project were the followings:

  • to contribute to in-depth understanding of the environmental and economic impacts of local food systems
  • to adapt and develop the social metabolism and the local multiplier methodology for European industrialized local conditions
  • to communicate the results internationally
Social metabolism

During the last two decades, social metabolism has become a recognized field of research. Rooted in the intellectual background of ecological economics (see Martinez-Alier 2009), its purpose is to study complex socio-economic systems and their interactions with the environment. For the intellectual history and basis of the social metabolism concept see Fischer-Kowalski (1998a; 1998b) and Fischer-Kowalski et al. (1999).

The social metabolism approach is “based on the premise that any social system not only reproduces itself culturally but also biophysically through a constant flow of materials and energy with its natural environment as well as with other social systems.” (Singh et al, 2010: 5) To study these exchange relations of material and energy flows, the conceptual framework of the Material and Energy Flow Accounting (MEFA) is used (Singh et al, 2010: 6).

Most of the social metabolism studies are conducted on a national level. There is a unified methodology approved for the EU countries by Eurostat (EUROSTAT, 2007), and comparable data are already available for the EU countries (e.g. Weisz et al., 2005), and also on a global scale (Dittrich et al., 2012).

For the Czech Republic, a comprehensive study of the country’s social metabolism and land-use was done by Kušková et al. (2008) for the period between 1830 and 2000.

For the regional and local level, there is a limited number of social metabolism studies (for their overview see Hammer et al., 2003). Most are focused either on countries of global South or, in countries of global North, on cities and their hinterlands.

As regards local food system studies, only a few pilot studies conducted in the context or industrialized rural areas are available (Krausmann, 2001; Krausmann et al., 2003; Haberl & Krausmann, 2007; Haas 2002).

Recently, a big international project on Sustainable Farm Systems is helping to broaden the data and case studies available on different scales (local, regional and national) and also in different geographical contexts (Canada, Colombia, Spain, Austria etc.). More information on the project, and very nice (and accessible) case studies from various countries are available at the NICHE (Network for Canadian History and Environment) websites. Also one Czech case study of traditional and current organic farming is available there.


  • Dittrich et al. (2012) Green economies around the world? Implications of resource use for development and the environment. SERI, Vienna.
  • EUROSTAT (2007) Economy-wide material flow accounting. A compilation guide. Eurostat and the European Commision. Lead author: Helga Weisz. Available at http://www.scb.se/statistik/MI/MI1304/_dokument/Compilation%20Guide%20MFA%20%202007.pdf (19.6.2012)
  • Fischer-Kowalski, M. (1998a) Society’s metabolism. In: Redclift, G. & Woodgate, G. (Eds.) International Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.
  • Fischer-Kowalski, M. (1998b) Society's Metabolism. The Intellectual History of Materials Flow Analysis, Part I, 1860-1970. Industrial Ecology 2 (1), 61-78.
  • Fischer-Kowalski, M.& Hüttler, W. (1999) Society's Metabolism. The Intellectual History of Materials Flow Analysis. Part II, 1970-1998. Journal of Industrial Ecology 2 (4), 107-136.
  • Hammer et al. (2003) Material Flow analysis on the regional level: Questions, problems, solutions. NEDS working papers 2, 04/2003.
  • Krausmann, F. (2001): Land Use and Industrial Modernization: an empirical analysis of human influence on the functioning of ecosystems in Austria 1830 – 1995. Land Use Policy 18 (1), pp. 17-26.
  • Krausmann, F. et al. (2003) Land-use change and socio-economic metabolism in Austria. Part I: driving forces of land-use change: 1950-1995. Land Use Policy 20 (1), pp. 1-20.
  • Kušková et al. (2008) Long-term changes in social metabolism and land use in Czechoslovakia, 1830-2000: An energy transition under changing political regimes. Ecological Economics 68 (1-2), pp. 394-407.
  • Martinez-Alier J. (2009) Social metabolism, ecological distribution conflicts, and languages of valuation. Capitalism Nature Socialism 20 : 58-87.
  • Singh, S.J. et al. (2010) Local studies manual. A researcher’s guide for investigating the social metabolism of local rural systems. Social Ecology Working Paper, Vienna. Available at http://www.uni-klu.ac.at/socec/downloads/WP120_Web.pdf (19.6.2012)
  • Weisz et al. (2005) The physical economy of the European Union: Cross country comparison and determinants of material consumption. Social Ecology Working Paper 76, Vienna.
Local multiplier

The multiplier effect was described already by J. M. Keynes, who studied the impacts of government spending on national economies. In the Keynesian sense, a multiplication effect occurs when a change in spending induces a more than proportional cumulative change in demand. In other words, “Increased spending causes firms to hire more workers, those workers go out and consume more, and a virtuous circle ensues.” (Mendel, 2012, in prep.)

By the same principle, the local multiplier can be calculated, expressing the “added value”, i.e. the cumulative positive change in demand and related potential of job creation on a local level – the assumed positive outcomes of economic localisation indicated above.

The British New Economics Foundation (NEF) has developed a simple tool, the Local Multiplier, to calculate the local multiplication effect for individual actors (be it a government body, local shop, a farm, or other) within a local economy. NEF recommends tracking the spending of the investigated actor up to the third round of circulation of the money within the local economy, and hence they call the tool LM3 (Local Multiplier, 3rd round).

LM3 can be interpreted as an indicator of how much the particular actor contributes to the local economy, and also of the strength of the local economy, expressed by the proportion of money staying circulating within the local economy before “leaking” outside. For a more detailed explanation of the logic and interpretation of the LM3 see NEF (2002).

There have been a number of LM3 case studies performed in the UK, mostly for the spending of the public sector and its impacts on local economies (see NEF, 2002). Specifically for the local food sector, a few studies exist using (not only) the local multiplier tool (Magnusson et al., 2010; Matinez et al., 2010).

In the Czech Republic, there are a few pilot studies using the LM3 tool also for investigating the effect of local governmental spending and its impacts on local economies (e.g. Ježková, 2009; Novotná, 2011, only in Czech).


  • Ježková, M. (2009) Lokální multiplikátor 3: lokalizace jako prvek udržitelného rozvoje. Diplomová práce, Masarykova univerzita, Fakulta sociálních studií, Brno.
  • Magnusson et al. (2010) Home grown: The economic impacts of local food systems in New Hampshire. Food Solutions New England, University of New Hampshire.
  • Martinez S. et al. (2010). Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. ERR 97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR97/ERR97.pdf (19.6.2012)
  • Mendel, B. (2012) The local multiplier. Theory and evidence. Paper in preparation. Available at http://people.fas.harvard.edu/~jbmendel/LocalMultiplier030612.pdf (20.6.2012)
  • NEF (2002) The money trail. Measuring your impact on the local economy using LM3. New Economics Foundation: London. Available at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/money-trail (20.6.2012)
  • Novotná, K. (2011) Ekonomická lokalizace v malých městech Jihomoravského kraje: případová studie vybraných ekonomických subjektů. Diplomová práce, MU, Fakulta sociálních studií, Brno.


Only publications in English are listed here. For more information in Czech, please see the Czech version of the websites (section "Publikace z projektu").

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FRAŇKOVÁ, Eva, Willi HAAS a Simron Jit SINGH. Socio-Metabolic Perspectives on the Sustainability of Local Food Systems. Německo: Springer International Publishing, 2017. 364 s. Human-Environment Interactions, sv. 7. ISBN 978-3-319-69235-7. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-69236-4

In case you are interested in any of the articles above do not hesitate to contact Eva Frankova and ask for fulltext version.


For any questions or comments, please contact me, I´m happy to be in touch with those interested in the topic of (more) sustainable food production systems.

Mgr. Eva Fraňková, Ph.D.

The coordinator of the project and is responsible for the content of this web

Phone: +420 549 49 3913

She works as the assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. Her long-term research interests include alternative economic practices, eco-localisation and the concept of sustainable degrowth. Currently she works on social and financial metabolism of local food systems, mapping of alternative economic initiatives in the Czech Republic, and research of social enterprises. She is also involved in the Association of Local Food Initiatives (AMPI, o.p.s.) and the Society and Economy Trust.

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