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Local and organic food: Is it always more sustainable?

Posted by Meg Stout on Jan 18, 2012
Tags: green tips

Yesterday, I picked a lemon from my green-leaved citrus tree. In northern Vermont. In January.

It is luscious, sharp, with a slightly orange rind, and this morning I enjoyed two slices in my tea. But for those of us who live in chillier climates, it does raise a question. Does local and organic food always have a lower carbon footprint?

A Vermont-grown Meyer lemonGrowing warm-weather fruits in the Northeast is not a practical choice. Many tropical and subtropical plants have requirements like intense sun, high humidity, and mild temperatures that the gray skies of New England rarely provide this time of year. My little lemon tree was shipped from a West Coast nursery, and it is supplemented with artificial light.

A recent article in the New York Times investigated the issue of wintertime produce, focusing on organic tomatoes that are grown in water-scarce regions of Mexico and then shipped to the U.S. Though they carry the USDA Organic seal and are sold at large chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, their sustainability appears questionable.

Of course, as with most environmental problems, there is no black and white answer. While more sustainable most of the time, “local” can sometimes mean produce grown in energy-intensive greenhouses, and “organic” can sometimes mean food irrigated in the desert and shipped thousands of miles.

So what can you do to make your winter diet as sustainable as possible?

1. Eat in season

Most people know that buying seasonal produce is better for the environment, but it can be difficult to do so. We’re used to year-round bananas for breakfast and salads with dinner. And often, it’s hard to even figure out what’s in season when the store shelves are lined with the same produce year-round. But several tricks can go a long way:

Winter CSA: Joining a winter CSA (community-supported agriculture, also known as a “farm share”) can be the easiest way to eat in season. You receive a set amount and variety of seasonal produce on a weekly or monthly basis from a local farm. The upside? It’s fun too. I never thought I could be passionate about Brussels sprouts or rutabaga, but the locally-grown food does taste that much better. If possible, select a certified organic farm. Many farmers also offer financial assistance or payment plans for those who can’t pay upfront.

Winter Farmer’s Markets: Communities across the U.S. now have winter farmer’s markets, where everything from hardy produce to local meats, honey, and even crafts are sold. Find a farmer’s market near you.

Educate Yourself: If a supermarket is your only option, or if you use it to supplement your groceries, you can make a big difference by learning what foods are in season and produced locally. Use this “What’s Fresh Near You” tool to determine the seasonal vegetables in your region. And don’t forget to look at the labels—buy from local producers when possible.

2. Know your producers

Buy from food producers at farmer’s markets, co-op stores, or other venues. Ask what their farming methods are; sometimes you might even have the opportunity to visit the farm.

3. Preserve the harvest

When food is plentiful during the growing season, there are many ways to preserve your harvest—through canning, drying, fermenting, and freezing. There’s nothing quite like cracking open a jar full of sweet berries in the dead of winter, and the satisfaction of knowing exactly where your food came from is powerful.

Few northerners want to give up peppers, oranges, and other warm-weather pleasures for nine months of the year, but even small reductions in the amount of shipped and imported foods can make a difference in carbon emissions. Consider whether you need to buy bananas each week, or if they might become an occasional treat.

As for my lemons, I calculated that the tree’s “regular care” emits around two pounds of carbon per year. Not bad, but I will try to enjoy them alongside kohlrabi and kale instead of tomatoes during these cold months.

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Mario Longoni
Posts: 2
Banana's are a fine choice
Reply #2 on : Thu January 26, 2012, 21:34:05
I think you have fallen into the trap you warn against, that this is all very complicated. My understanding is that a banana that comes from central America in the hold of a ship to the east coast or a port along the St. Lawrence Seaway has a smaller carbon footprint than say an apple trucked from Washington St. to Chicago. I think you would do better to advise people to have two fewer meat meals a week, if they eat it and can't see giving it up. Or to make sure they are eating whole foods rather than processed and packaged stuff. Processed food takes 2-3 times more energy to produce and that is not counting he packaging energy.

Posts: 1
RE: Banana's are a fine choice
Reply #1 on : Tue March 06, 2012, 21:07:27
All important points, Mario. Thanks for weighing in!