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‘Tis the Season to Eat Sustainably

Photo credit goes to Theophilos Papadopoulos.

So I noticed something really weird the other day while browsing around the local Carrefour market with my colleagues…. Watermelons, I saw watermelons!

Now I’m no farmer, but I sure as hell know that it’s not watermelon season. And even if it were, I don’t think watermelons would grow very well here in Belgium, considering they prefer warmer climates and all.

What I’m getting to is that seasonality and locality are paramount when it comes to sustainability. But why’s that so?

Transportation: Thanks to globalization, no matter where you are in the western world, you’ll find many of the same fruits and vegetables, even if they’re not grown there. Bananas are a prime example. Depending on your location, the “foodprint” of delivering bananas can be quite large.

In order to last the long journey, many fruits and vegetables are picked prematurely and gassed to ripen upon arrival or packed with preservatives to keep “fresh” along the way.

Transporting food, particularly over long distances, uses a lot of fossil fuel so it’s important to take location into account when weighing your purchasing decisions. A nice way to do this is by getting to know your foods. In researching where and how your foods are grown, you’ll be able to better understand their environmental impacts and deepen your appreciation for them.

A solution to avoiding the negative impacts associated with transportation is to purchase foods that are local to your region, preferably organic, and to shop at farmers markets or local food stores. Shopping at these places will not only allow you to minimize your carbon footprint and support your local economy, but also to foster relationships with some really cool and interesting folk as well.

Production:  While transportation plays a significant role in determining the carbon footprint of food, nothing compares to the most important factor of all, production. According to a well-known study on the matter, Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews note that as much as 83% of GHG emissions associated with food come from the production phase while transportation represents 11% and final delivery from producer to retail contributes about 4%. Think back to those watermelons. Chances are they were grown in an artificial environment, using mass amounts of energy for irrigation, pollination and powering a greenhouse to mimic warm climate. To boot, the flavor of the watermelon will suffer due to the artificial growing conditions, leaving you with something that’s tasteless and bland.

The solution here is to purchase foods that are in season. Sometimes it’s not always easy to know what’s in season, but there are some really cool resources out there that’ll help with that.

For those of you living in the states, www.sustainabletable.org provides a user friendly search engine to see what’s currently in season in your state.

Oftentimes, a quick google search on seasonal foods in your region will yield fine results, however, in the case that it doesn’t, the following infographics from www.dailyinfographic.com are here to help. Please note that these infographics only pertain to the northern hemisphere.

The key to shopping sustainably and reducing your overall foodprint is to buy a mix of both seasonal and local products – ideally meaning foods that are grown within about 100 miles from your home.

One really important thing I’d like to emphasize is that local doesn’t always equate to a lower foodprint. It’s really important to take the entire life cycle of the food into account. A good example of this would be avocados. Let’s say that during my weekly shopping run I find an avocado that was locally grown in Belgium during its peak season. As the conditions to grow avocados in Belgium are not at all ideal, the intervention – in the form of resources and energy – needed to successfully do so is most likely cumbersome and carbon intensive. In this case, buying local is worse for the environment so I might decide to purchase an avocado coming from Spain instead, which would yield an overall lower foodprint. The key to buying the right local foods is to discover what flourishes naturally in your region.

Stay sharp out there guys and remember – mindful shopping will yield sustainable results!

Until next time, The Sustainable Guy out.

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