Sunday, January 24, 2010

Problems with produce.

One of my eating commitments was to buy seasonal, organic produce mostly from farmer’s markets. Organic produce is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, which is better for the environmental and, often, better for our health. I wanted to shop mainly at farmer’s markets because the food is more likely to be local and seasonal. In fact, those two characteristics go hand-in-hand. When something is out of season here, it is often shipped from far away or grown in ways that require a lot of extra energy. Buying seasonal or local usually means my produce didn’t travel 1500 miles to my plate, which is the average distance that industrial food travels to get from farm to consumer.

It was this commitment that brought me to the local farmer’s market today to pick up produce for the week. The market was quite large but unfortunately had only one certified organic vendor. I was only able to get about half of the items I needed from this vendor, which created quite a dilemma for me. Other vendors had the produce I had picked for my dinners this week (specifically because they are seasonal), and the vendors are certainly local, but they are not organic. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I went ahead and bought most of the things I still needed and headed for Trader Joe’s.

I love shopping at TJs. They have reasonable prices, their food contains much more wholesome ingredients than the more standard grocery chain fare, and they offer lots of organic options. (They also gave me a free banana when I showed up on my way to a 5K race, desperate for my running fuel, before the store had even opened for the day. They will also allow you to open and taste any item without any commitment to buy!) I was hopeful, when I arrived, that they would have the rest of the fruits and veggies I was seeking. Instead, I ran into the opposite problem from the farmer’s market. They had organic options, but they were not at all local. Most of the items I wanted were grown in Chile! I ended up buying some of these foods and just gave up altogether by purchasing a non-organic eggplant from Mexico. I left the store feeling rather dismayed and wondering which is actually better: local or organic.

When I got home, I did a little research. This article does a good job of explaining why eating local food is probably the right thing to do and why it’s not always easy to be sure. Basically, the best things about eating local produce (usually defined as being grown less than 100 miles away) are that there is less of a carbon footprint from transportation and there is more communication (and accountability) between farmer and consumer. As the article points out, all other things being equal, it is certainly better for the environment for me to eat a tomato grown a block away rather than one that was shipped from Mexico. However, a lot of other things are not equal. The type of transportation makes a huge difference in the carbon footprint of a given food item, as can the conditions in which it was grown or processed. It can actually be very difficult to determine which of two foods are “better”. When it comes to organic, however, there is a definite benefit to the environment due to the restriction of certain chemicals and practices. So, while local and organic is best, organic but traveled may be better than local but not organic. Maybe.

The more interesting part of the article is the comparison between the environmental impact of food transportation versus other aspects of the food industry. It turns out that red meat and dairy production are far worse for the environment than any other aspect of the food industry. The article cites studies that showed that in the UK and in Sweden, meat and dairy account for half their total food emissions. Half! They also point out that replacing meat and dairy with vegetables only one day a week can reduce greenhouse gases more than if you lived next door to a farm and didn’t have to drive anywhere to get all of your food.

So what does this mean for me? For one thing, it means that my choice to cook only one meat dish per week (and use meat from a local, ethical farm) has a much greater impact on the environment than buying local produce! Any positive difference I could make by buying locally would be swamped out by the negative impact of serving my local veggies as a side dish for the industrial steak I got at the grocery store. Choosing organic produce is still useful because it has benefits beyond reducing emissions, and local organic still sounds like the best option. But before I agonize over every vegetable on my grocery list, I need to remember that every time I pick an organic vegetable over an industrial one, I am helping, even if it wasn’t grown down the street. Even if I also buy one eggplant from Mexico…


  1. Mexico can't be THAT far ...

    You have the luxury of living in a climate that may actually have year-round seasonal produce. Imagine trying to eat locally during an Alaskan winter, or in Arizona (you'd be limited to broccoli and lettuce watered with CAP water, citrus, and cactus fruit). I think for most people, the goal is to help when possible. A heavy-weight alternative is to buy and preserve extra local foods when they are readily available, but I suspect that's not entirely realistic either.

    My grandparents grew much of their own vegetables and fruits; my grandfather worked the backyard garden several hours a day, year-round and my grandmother spent tons of time canning what they grew. It didn't leave much time for trips or leisure. I guess my worry is that if we all try to stay close to farming, we, to some degree, become farmers again (having to spend more and more time working out these details for ourselves).

    How many people need to demand local/organic produce before it becomes readily available in grocery stores (when possible)? perhaps a tax benefit for businesses choosing local over shipped-in?

    And, how much of our carbon footprint comes from trucking food around? I suspect it pales in comparison to energy used in heating and cooling.

    While it's great to help when we can, are we sure we're investing our time where it has the most impact?

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