Eating seasonally and locally could benefit the environment

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“Eating with the seasons” has long been the rallying cry of local producers and their supporters. It is an easy to understand message.

The taste and nutritional value of a greenhouse tomato from the supermarket’s year-round stock does not match that of a sun-ripened tomato from a community garden. You’ll get a lot more berries for your money harvesting them yourself at a U-Pick farm than buying the ones packaged in half-pint plastic containers and flown thousands of miles away. And frequenting our neighborhood farmers markets gives us the good feeling of getting to know our sustainability-minded producers and their eco-friendly practices while investing in the local economy.

But do personal food choices such as these do much, if anything, to heal our sick planet?

The answer is complicated, and it depends on the food in question. A United Nations-backed study from 2021 shows that the way we produce, process and package food accounts for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. A 2019 report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, a team of leading scientists from around the world, further warned that without radically changing our food consumption habits, we will not be able to meet the nutritional needs of a growing world population without irreversible damage to the environment. .

And a new study exploring the carbon footprint (greenhouse gas emissions) of Americans’ changing eating habits assures us that our efforts to buy and eat better aren’t wasted. Some foods have a radically different impact on the environment. Animal products and heavily processed and packaged foods, for example, typically require significantly more energy to produce than homegrown and handmade foods at local farmers’ markets. According to one study, five staples are responsible for more than 75% of the carbon footprint of the American diet: beef, milk and dairy products, pork, chicken and eggs. And more than half of those greenhouse gases can be attributed to beef.

“The good news,” said Clare Bassi, co-author of the study, “diet changes are happening.” According to his study, over a 15-year period, beef consumption in the United States fell by 30%, while collective changes in the eating habits of all demographic groups led to a 35% drop in gas emissions. Greenhouse effect. That’s roughly equivalent to taking every passenger vehicle off the road for almost two years, she said in an email.

The study calculated greenhouse gas emissions based on individual daily diets reported by more than 39,000 American adults in the National Health and Nutrition Survey between 2003 and 2018. Bassi said 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 study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Other studies, Bassi added, have shown that more than half of Americans are willing to eat more plant-based meat alternatives, and it’s predicted that the global market for plant-based protein sources could quintuple by now. 2030.

A common claim among local food advocates is that reducing our “food miles” – the distance our food travels from farm to fork – can also help fight climate change. Some groups have even advocated labeling to indicate the mileage of a product to its destination.

It might sound intuitively logical, but in a 2020 report, Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, calls it “one of the most misguided pieces of advice.”

Land use and on-farm emissions, including fertilizer application and the production of methane in the stomachs of livestock, account for more than 80% of the footprint of most foods.

Transport is responsible for less than 10% of their final carbon impact; for beef, it’s less than 1%. The rest of a food’s emissions occur primarily during processing, packaging and retail.

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

However, she notes one exception where seasonality and geography make a difference: products that travel by air. Most food is transported by ship, which generates far fewer emissions. Air freight is generally reserved for highly perishable foods where speed of delivery is essential, such as blueberries or green beans. So it’s a safe bet that these fragile fruits and vegetables on the farm will be a more climate-friendly choice than their out-of-season mass-produced counterparts.

As with recycling, trying to offer universal solutions is tricky and sometimes even counterproductive.

Scientists and activists tell us that no amount of individual action will be enough to reverse catastrophic climate impacts. Global policies holding the industry accountable for its role in the crisis, they point out, are essential to tackle the scale of the problem.

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

By far the most important thing we can do at the dinner table to mitigate climate change, she said, is to eat less meat and dairy, and incorporate a variety of healthy dairy-based alternatives. of plants in our diet: fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, nuts.

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

“Local sourcing can be a factor in reducing impact,” Bassi said. “But it’s often a small or very variable lever of change.” She and other experts point out that it’s important for consumers to understand that what we eat, rather than where it comes from and how it gets to us, matters most when trying to reduce our own carbon footprint.

“Most consumers don’t want to invest tons of time sorting out these simultaneous equations in their heads when making their food purchases,” said Roni Neff, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and program director at the Johns Hopkins Center. for a viable future. Neither should they.

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

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

Farmers have to grow far more food than we actually need because around 30-40% of what they produce is thrown away, according to the United Natural Resources Defense Council. This comes at a huge greenhouse gas cost, Neff said. Moreover, it wastes land, water, labor, energy and other valuable resources.

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

Turning food scraps into nutrient-rich compost can combat food waste while helping your garden grow. Neff also suggested getting creative with leftovers, following guidelines for freezing your excess, and placing a special bin in the front of the fridge for things that need to be eaten faster.

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

Scientists tell us that a wide diversity of plant and animal life, from soil microbes to top predators such as bears and wolves, is essential to maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem. Monoculture, the practice of growing a single species with identical genes in the same field, is responsible for much of the uniform produce available year-round in supermarkets. While these methods have the advantage of producing huge volumes cheaply and consistently, they also destroy the biological diversity needed for long-term sustenance.

“We have lost a lot of our biodiversity in our food supply and have limited ourselves to a few varieties of fruits and vegetables that we love and know and keep coming back to,” Neff said. “A farmers’ market is a great place to taste and try a lot of things you’ve never tried. You might be the first in your neighborhood to try a new variety of peach they’ve never heard of, and who knows, that peach might turn out to be more drought- or pest-tolerant than the more common ones on store shelves. supermarkets. .”

From peaches and tomatoes in summer, to citrus fruits, kale and winter, nature is our best teacher in helping us vary our meals, which is good for our diets 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 in every state throughout the year, based on data from the National Resources Defense Council and the state departments of agriculture and university extension. programs across the United States. The guide offers recipes and tips for maximizing their uses in your kitchen. For advice on the most sustainable seafood choices in your area or at the supermarket year-round, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app.

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