Eating seasonally and locally can benefit the environment

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“Eat with the seasons” has long been the cry of local growers and their supporters. It’s a message that’s easy to embrace.

The flavor and nutritional value of a year-round greenhouse tomato from the supermarket is no match for one sun-ripened in a community garden. You’ll get a lot more berries for your money at a U-Pick farm picking them yourself than buying them packed in half-pint plastic containers and airlifted thousands of miles. And patronizing our neighborhood farmers’ markets gives us a good feeling about our sustainable producers and earth-friendly practices while investing in the local economy.

But do such personal food choices do much, if anything, to heal our ailing planet?

The answer is complicated, and it depends on the food. A 2021 United Nations-sponsored study shows that the way food is produced, processed and packaged contributes to more than a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. A 2019 report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of leading scientists from around the world, also warned that without a radical change in our food consumption habits, we will not be able to meet the nutritional needs of a growing world population without irreversible environmental damage. .

And a new study examining the carbon footprint (greenhouse gas emissions) of the evolutionary evolution of Americans’ eating patterns assures us that our efforts to shop and eat better are not in vain. Some foods affect the environment in radically different ways. Animal products and highly processed and packaged foods, for example, typically require considerably more energy to produce than homemade and handmade foods at local farmers’ markets. Five products are responsible for more than 75% of the carbon footprint of the US diet, according to the study: beef, milk and dairy products, pork, chicken and eggs. And more than half of these greenhouse gases can be attributed to beef.

“The good news,” said study author Clare Bassi, “is that dietary changes are happening.” According to his research, over a 15-year period, US beef consumption fell by 30%, and collective changes in eating habits across all demographics led to a 35% drop in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s roughly the equivalent of taking every passenger vehicle off the road for two years, he said in an email.

The study estimated greenhouse gas emissions reported by more than 39,000 US adults between 2003 and 2018. Bassi looked at how averages changed over time and looked at trends based on demographic factors such as gender, age, household income, and race/ethnicity. The research was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Other studies, Bassi added, show that more than half of Americans are willing to eat more plant-based meat alternatives, and it is predicted that the global market for plant-based protein sources could increase fivefold by 2030.

A common claim among local food advocates is that reducing our “food miles” — the distance our food travels from farm to plate — can also help combat climate change. Some groups have also advocated labeling to indicate how many miles a product has traveled to its destination.

This may make sense intuitively, but in a 2020 report, Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, calls it “one of the worst pieces of advice.”

Land use and farm-phase emissions, including fertilizer application and cow stomach methane production, account for more than 80% of the footprint of most foods.

Transport is responsible for less than 10% of the final carbon impact; for the cow it is less than 1%. The remaining emissions of a food mostly occur during processing, packaging and retailing.

“Eating locally would have a significant impact if transportation were responsible for a large portion of food’s final carbon footprint,” Ritchie wrote in the report. “For most foods, it’s not.”

However, he noted one exception where season and geography make a difference: products that travel by air. Most food is transported by ship, which produces much less emissions. Air freight is generally reserved for highly perishable foods where speed of delivery is essential, such as blueberries or beans. So it’s probably a safe bet that those fragile fruits and vegetables at the farm stand will be more climate-friendly options than mass-produced out-of-season produce.

As with recycling, trying to offer one-size-fits-all solutions is difficult, and sometimes counterproductive.

Scientists and activists tell us that no individual action will be enough to stop the catastrophic effects of the climate. They emphasize that global policies that demand responsibility for their role in the industrial crisis are essential to address the scale of the problem.

But that doesn’t mean consumers are powerless beyond pressuring their legislators. “Small changes at home can really make a positive impact,” Bassi said.

For now, the most significant thing we can do in the dining room to mitigate climate change, he said, is to eat less meat and dairy, and include a variety of healthy plant-based alternatives in our diet: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts.

While eating less meat is one of the most quantifiable actions we can take, other actions add up.

“Supplying locally can be a factor in reducing the impact,” said Bassi. “But often the lever for change is small or very variable.” He and other experts stress that it’s important for consumers to understand that what we eat, rather than where it comes from and how it gets there, matters most when trying to reduce our carbon footprint.

“Most consumers don’t want to invest a lot of time in their minds to untangle these simultaneous equations when shopping for food,” said Roni Neff, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and program director at the Johns Hopkins Center. For a livable future. Nor should

Making these dietary changes doesn’t have to be difficult, Neff said. “If the goal is to reduce the greenhouse effect, weighing the differences between this apple and that apple is more important than knowing it’s an apple,” he said. “Think about the bottom of the food chain you learned about in grade school: plants eating plants and shellfish.”

Another practical way for individuals to control their carbon footprint is to reduce food waste.

Farmers must grow more food than we actually need because they throw away about 30 to 40 percent of what they produce, according to the United Natural Resources Defense Council. That comes at a high cost in greenhouse gases, Neff said. It also wastes land, water, labor, energy and other valuable resources.

In this sense, he pointed out, controlling our portion sizes is important not only for our waistlines, but also for the planet. “It’s easy to buy more than we can realistically eat, especially when we’re shopping at the farmers market, when everything is fresh and beautiful and we want to try everything and buy everything,” she said.

Turning food scraps into nutrient-rich compost can combat food waste while helping your garden grow. Neff also recommended getting creative with leftovers by following directions for freezing your leftovers and putting a special container in the front of the fridge for items that need to be consumed more quickly.

“A really useful way to come up with solutions is to write down everything your household actually eats for a week,” suggested Neff. “Get in the habit of contacting family members to coordinate schedules so you know who will be at meals.”

Scientists tell us that the great diversity of plant and animal life, from soil microbes to large predators like bears and wolves, is essential to maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem. Monoculture, the practice of growing only species with the same genes in the same area, is responsible for the uniform produce we have available in supermarkets all year round. While these methods have the advantage of producing large volumes cheaply and consistently, they also destroy the biological diversity needed for long-term maintenance.

“We’ve lost a lot of our biodiversity in our food supply and we’ve reduced some of the varieties of fruits and vegetables that we like and know and keep coming back to,” Neff said. “The farmer’s market is a great place to taste and try a lot of things you haven’t tried. You could be the first on your block to try a new variety of peach they’ve never heard of, and who knows – that peach might be more drought or pest resistant than the ones on the supermarket shelf. “.

From peaches and tomatoes in the summer to citrus fruits and kale in the winter, nature is our best teacher helping us add variety to our meals, which is good for our nutrition as well as the planet.

The Seasonal Food Guide is a comprehensive national database with a downloadable app of seasonal foods (vegetables, herbs, legumes, nuts) available year-round in each state, based on data from the National Resources Defense Council and state departments of agriculture and university extension. programs across the US. The guide offers recipes and tips for maximizing uses in your kitchen. For guidance on making the most sustainable seafood choices in your area or at the supermarket throughout the year, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app.