Today we are back with my most favourite topic: FOOD! This post is going to look at seasonal and local produce, our perceptions of what is “seasonal” and whether eating with the seasons is better for the environment. Enjoy!
Our supermarkets today allow us to purchase food products from all over the world. This incorporates hefty food miles (the distance which your food has taken to get to your mouth), intensive agriculture and associated social and environmental damage (La Trobe & Acott, 2000). Growing foods in artificial environments has become more and more profitable. For example, in Guatemala it is better to produce and export meat than to keep it for your family and community (La Trobe & Acott, 2000). The proportion of domestic food production is decreasing around the world – in Brazil, increasing exports of basic foodstuffs has pushed domestic production right down, and unemployment is rising through increased mechanisation (La Trobe & Acott, 2000). The system of optimising production not only puts money before people, but also before the environment -pesticides and fertilisers used without restraint pollute waters, create health issues for workers and increase likelihood of pest resistance, making damage to crops more likely (La Trobe & Acott, 2000).
“It is estimated that each item of food now travels 50% further than it did in 1979” – La Trobe & Acott, 2000
Increasing environmental awareness has led to the consumption of seasonal and local produce gaining popularity. But what is “seasonal” produce? In their research on the topic, Brooks et al. (2011) found that consumers believed the definition to encompass food that is grown and possibly consumed during its natural growing season, without artificial heat/light. Consumers also believe that seasonal produce tends to be healthier, fresher and tastes better (Tobler et al., 2011; Wilkins, 2002), which is the main driver for many towards seasonal fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, consumers at food cooperatives were more aware and more likely to buy seasonal produce than those at a typical supermarket in the US, since they had greater exposure to the region from which products had been grown through labelling (Wilkins, 2002).
The environmental basis behind choosing seasonal and local produce stems from a range of reasons, including reducing air miles, reducing plastic packaging (from buying at farmers markets for example, rather than supermarkets where exotic foods are wrapped to preserve their freshness), supporting local farmers and reducing energy through chilling/freezing in storage (Brooks et al., 2011). Consumers are aware of these factors, but the importance of each can be skewed by personal opinion and willingness to change purchasing habits – for example, consumers rated the need to reduce plastic packaging as being much more environmentally beneficial than reducing meat consumption of buying organic produce, despite the fact that the latter are more beneficial in terms of life cycle analysis (which includes carbon and water production) (Tobler et al., 2011).
“Sourcing food from across the globe that is ‘in season’ and produced during its natural growing period will, in some cases, have a lower environmental impact than sourcing food produced ‘out of season’ but locally” – Brooks et al., 2011
Outdoor crops grown during their natural season reduces the need for heating, air freight and storage when consumed locally to production. But the need to consume “locally” seasonal produce is heavily stated in the academic literature – even though producing food following the seasons will reduce environmental damage, when they are not eaten locally there can still be huge air miles associated with it. Bioregionalism is the term used to describe the idea of focusing on the natural resources that the local region, climate and soil can produce, and is suggested by La Trobe and Acott (2000) to have the potential to change our food systems for the better. Yet there are still examples where seasonal food can be less environmentally friendly than more intensively grown out-of-season foods – for example, seasonally produced summer strawberries grown outside in the UK had a larger water and land footprint than those produced in greenhouse conditions in the autumn (Brooks et al., 2011).
What then is an environmentally conscious consumer supposed to eat?! The main messages from this research highlight the importance of consuming locally – it takes 47x as much energy to transport food by plane than by boat (La Trobe & Acott, 2000), and even less if it’s grown in the farm down the road to you. Eating seasonal produce makes sense only when it has been produced locally, and even more sense if it is organic. Organic systems aim to integrate sustainability into the heart of their operations – through employing more people, reducing chemical usage and producing high-quality goods (La Trobe & Acott, 2000). But again, don’t be distracted by the word “organic” – twenty years ago, the UK imported 70% of its organic produce (La Trobe & Acott, 2000), and today almost half of all our food Is imported from abroad (Defra, 2020). My advice is therefore this: hesitate when buying seasonal produce – check that it is seasonal and local to you. The combination of locally produced and seasonally grown is the key to reducing the environmental damage of the food on your plate.
Seasonal UK Food examples
Maybe you’ll also like…
Brooks, M., Foster, C., Holmes, M. & Wiltshire, J. (2011) Does consuming seasonal foods benefit the environment? Insights from recent research. Nutrition Bulletin, 36(4), pp.449-453
Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2020) Food Statistics in your Pocket: Globla and UK Supply. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/food-statistics-pocketbook/food-statistics-in-your-pocket-global-and-uk-supply (Accessed: 22/09/20)
La Trobe, H.L. & Acott, T.G. (2000) Localising the global food system. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 7(4), pp.309-320
Naturaler (2019) Printable Seasonal Food Chart UK. [online] Available at: https://naturaler.co.uk/seasonal-food-chart/ (Accessed: 22/09/2020)
Tobler, C., Visschers, V.H. & Siegrist, M. (2011) Eating green. Consumers’ willingness to adopt ecological food consumption behaviors. Appetite, 57(3), pp.674-682
Wilkins, J.L. (2002) Consumer perceptions of seasonal and local foods: A study in a US community. Ecology of food and nutrition, 41(5), pp.415-439