Choose local & organic

December 13, 2012

Eating foods that are locally grown and organic can make a big difference, but it doesn’t trump eating low on the food chain as the most effective way to reverse wilderness destruction, climate change emissions, pollution and other ills.

Shifting to an entirely local diet would reduce the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as driving 1,000 miles per year. By comparison changing to a plant-based diet for just one day per week would have about the same impact! For those who eat the average North American diet (centered on meat), shifting entirely to a vegetarian-based diet would reduce the same emissions as driving 8,000 miles per year. The average American drives 12,000 miles per year.

The above information is from a 2008 article in the prestigious Environmental Science & Technology journal. Researchers Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews found that it is dietary choice, not food miles, which most determines a household’s food-related climate impacts.

Locally grown

Buying locally grown food supports nearby farmers, and greatly reduces the energy and resources necessary to transport and store foods. Their are three main modes of transport:

By land – Typically, produce from Mexico or California is shipped in refrigerated trucks. When you buy long-distance food part of the price you pay is for fuel and the truck. You are also supporting the need for wide highways that carve their way through wilderness areas, creating barriers and hazards for wildlife.

By air – Fresh food from other continents is frequently flown in by airplanes. Planes require staggering amounts of fuel to lift produce and meat into the air and across oceans.

 By sea – According to a UN study reported in the Guardian, shipping is responsible for 4.5% of all global emissions of CO2 – almost three times higher than previously believed. Ships exploit a ready supply of the world’s cheapest, most polluting “bunker” fuel.

Highlights from an article at Delicious Earth:

  • Marine heavy fuel oil, which is burned by all large ships, is the residue of the world’s oil refineries.
  • Alarming levels of cancer-causing air pollution are being released.
  • Shipping stuff by airplane generates even more emissions.
  • Food imports from China have tripled over the past decade.
  • China is now Canada’s fifth largest supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

A 2002 Worldwatch report says that a typical meal made with ingredients from a supermarket takes four to 17 times more petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal made from local ingredients. And a head of lettuce grown in California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives.

Often, local food is the freshest and cheapest produce available in the store. The warm months in northern climates are the best time to eat freshly harvested fruit and vegetables. Even in the winter, you can find locally grown potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips, squash, apples, and more. gardenFarmers markets are great places to check out. You can preserve seasonal fruits by canning, freezing or dehydrating.

Gardening is the ultimate way to obtain local foods. Start one in your backyard, front yard, community garden, planter box, or even in a sprouting jar.

Photo: Community garden that is part of theYale Sustainable Food Project >

Collecting wild edibles is another option. Even in a large city like Toronto you can find semi-wild urban edibles in parks, lanes and overhanging sidewalks. Saskatoon berries, mulberries, cherries, apples, pears, dandelions, stinging nettle, and mint are a few of the many possibilities.

According to Worldwatch Researcher Brian Halweil, “Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage. It’s harvested at the peak of ripeness and doesn’t have to be fumigated, refrigerated, or packaged for long-distance hauling and long shelf-life. … Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial. But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local cuisines and crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary imperialism.”

Exceptions: Peter Singer points out in his new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, that locally-grown is not always the best option for easily shipped dry goods. “…people often don’t realize that if you’re shipping something like rice by sea, the fuel costs are extremely low. Shipping is a very efficient way of transporting. It may be that if you’re buying rice in California, the rice from Bangladesh has used less fossil fuel than California rice, even counting what it takes to get there.” He also points out that fresh produce, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, grown off-season in local greenhouses may use as much energy as it takes to ship produce from the south. For more on this see the article at Delicious Earth.

Organic

By voting with your food dollars you can support organic methods while at the same time saying no to chemical agriculture. Modern conventional farming relies on soil fumigants, herbicides, systemic insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides. One highly toxic agent called Monitor is applied to potato fields simply to prevent brown spotting, a cosmetic defect caused by the leaf roll virus.

Organic food is grown without any chemical agents. The seed cannot be genetically modified, and the use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer is not permitted. Farmers tend to use traditional methods that are more sustainable and healthy for the soil, plants and farm workers, and ultimately for the Earth. Strategies include attracting beneficial insects, growing a wide diversity of plants, applying compost and manure, and using some natural agents. Organic food items are usually more expensive due to low distribution and extra labour requirements, but prices will continue to come down as more people support it.

Organic farmers markets and the larger natural food stores offer the best selection of vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, and other foods. Many supermarkets such as Safeway and Loblaws now offer organic produce and their own lines of packaged products. But typical for grocery stores, most of the fruits and vegetables are shipped in from afar, and many of the processed items are overly sweet, refined, and packaged.

Since 1990, Cuba has undergone an urban organic agriculture revolution. A report by FoodFirst demonstrates that organic farming – often considered an insignificant part of the food supply – can feed an entire country.

Harvest season – where to find local produce

Dolphin protestLate summer and early autumn are best times of the year to find locally-grown fruits and veggies. Not only are local foods the freshest and often cheapest choice, they are also better for the environment. Buying local greatly reduces the energy and resources necessary to transport and store foods, while at the same time supporting nearby farmers.
So where is the best place to shop for this delicious local bounty? Large farmers’ markets will likely be your best choice. Even organic markets have a great selection. I counted 92 variations of fruits, veggies, fresh herbs and mushrooms at the Dufferin Grove Organic Market in Toronto. I wasn’t expecting to find much at my local supermarket, but to my surprise I counted 118 (6 were organic) Canada-grown items last week at Loblaws’ Christie and Dupont location. A neighbourhood produce store at Bloor and Manning had about 50 items. Note: in some cases it was hard to tell as signage was missing and some Canadian items may be from BC. At Karma Coop, a member-owned natural food store, there were 72 mostly-organic local items down from 85 last week. Noah’s Natural Foods at Bloor and Spadina had about 40 all-organic choices. Most of this great local fare is very seasonal, so stock up while you can. For market locations links see the sidebar
– Steve

Where to find farmers’ markets:

• Toronto – Veg.ca/tfm (organic markets) and City of Toronto’s list.
• Ontario – Farmers’ Markets Ontario lists all the local markets across the province.
• United States – Localharvest.org has a great zoomable, searchable map of local markets.


More information

Produce: Organic VS Local
From Treehugger.com – March 08, 2005

Eating Fossil Fuels
A detailed article on how much energy it takes to produce food. Approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the US. This energy consumption is used as follows:
·  31% for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer
·  19% for the operation of field machinery
·  16% for transportation
·  13% for irrigation
·  8% for raising livestock (not including livestock feed)
·  5% for crop drying
·  5% for pesticide production
·  8% miscellaneous
Energy costs for packaging, refrigeration, transportation to retail outlets, and household cooking are not considered in these figures.