Buying seasonal, local foods

Last updated Monday 21 July 2008

Avoid jet-setting, globe-trotting greens

Eating seasonal, field-grown foods can take a big bite out of your emissions. Sound appetising?

Research on the climate impact of the food on our plate is a controversial area, with the jury still out on much of it. Even so, a fifth of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions come from food and the climate impact of eating fruit and veggies rivals that of petroleum refining - so it's a key area.

The downside of meat and dairy has been well documented but did you know your greens may not be as green as you think either? All that fertilising, artificial heating, packaging, storage and transport can make the emissions of the average Indian grape or British green bean sky high - before you even turn on the gas to cook it.

So where can a carb-counter find a climate-friendly meal?

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Photo: Buying seasonal, local foods

Saves up to 1,100kg of CO2 a year

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It's Not Easy Being Green: apple-picking

Blur's Alex James picks apples on his farm in Oxfordshire

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How will it make a difference

The complexity of the global food system means for now it's impossible to say exactly how much CO2 you would save by eating local nosh grown in a nearby field instead of foreign food that's been flown to your plate.

But what is clear is that eating local food is not necessarily the most climate-friendly option - unless it's also seasonal. Paradoxically, food grown abroad in fields and flown to your plate can have a lower climate impact than food grown in the UK because Britain relies heavily on energy-guzzling greenhouses. All things considered, however, it's safe to say that a tomato grown in a heated greenhouse overseas is worse for the climate than one from your own growbag.

Food that's been flown to your plate has a bad reputation for good reason.

  • Air-freighted Kenyan green beans can be over 20 times more greenhouse gas intensive than their UK seasonal counterparts
  • Almost half of the CO2 emissions from transporting fruit and veg consumed in the UK are due to the 2% of fruit and veg that is air-freighted - excluding travel to the shops
  • A bag of Californian spinach that has been delivered to London emits four times its own weight in CO2 according to Chris Goodall, author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life
  • A vegetarian diet composed entirely of air-freighted or greenhouse-grown greens and dairy could conceivably have as great a climate impact as a meat-eater's
  • Shipping a kilo of food from South Africa to the UK rather than flying it generates 150 times fewer emissions

Avoiding air-freighted food will slim your emissions - but not if you replace it with British food grown in greenhouses. In fact, British tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses in winter can generate three times more emissions than tomatoes cultivated in Spain (where growers benefit from more sunlight).

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What's the debate?

Pub Fact

  • Due to the energy intensity of greenhouses, one study found that importing roses to the UK from Kenya is six times less greenhouse gas intensive than the Dutch, even though the former are air-freighted
  • The average nutrition-conscious, middle-class household consumes about 20kg of air-freighted goods over the year. That's about 200kg of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Food refrigeration accounts for about 3% of UK greenhouse gas emissions
  • Almost all of the fruit, and half of all the veggies we eat coming from abroad
  • Each year, the average UK adult travels about 135 miles by car to shop for food
  • A third of the European Union's greenhouse gas emissions are food-related
  • About 2% of UK's greenhouse gas emissions are from alcohol

Is local food always better for the climate?

Not always. How a food is cultivated, stored and cooked - and what it is - can be just as important as where it is grown and the number of food miles it clocks up. That's why the only safe rule of thumb is to eat food that is both local and seasonal - meaning that it was grown in a nearby field rather than a heated greenhouse.

In fact, local food that's been grown out of season in heated greenhouses, heavily fertilised, harvested using fuel-heavy machinery and stored for months in fridges can be worse for the climate than produce grown abroad using the sun's heat, picked by humans and flown to the UK.

Take the green bean. Kenyan beans grown and hand-picked in fields require climate-intensive air-freighting to get to your plate - yet research suggests that they can produce fewer emissions than British beans that have been grown in greenhouses and depend heavily on machinery and synthetic fertilisers. While some greenhouses are increasingly using new technology to reduce their emissions (and even add energy to the grid ), they still represent a significant and growing contribution to climate change.

Similarly, British apples are not always a low-emissions alternative to imported apples - due to the way in which they are 'kept alive' in energy-intensive fridges for up to a year after harvest. In fact, an apple in August can have more carbon on its conscience than an apple that has been freshly harvested in New Zealand and shipped to the UK.

Perhaps more surprisingly still, even New Zealand lamb, according to research at Lincoln University, can have a lower climate impact than lamb farmed in Britain because of the efficiency of New Zealand's livestock industry - even including transport emissions from New Zealand to the UK. But that doesn't make it a low-carbon option, warn critics - it just means that both have a damaging impact.

Clocking up mileage at home

You'd think that buying British would eliminate food miles. Sadly it turns out food doesn't have to travel from an exotic location to rack up the miles. UK-produced food can also travel substantial distances between farm, processors, storage depot and the supermarket - which drives up road emissions.

In fact, driving is such a carbon-intensive mode of a transport that "driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK", according to Gareth Thomas, the Minister for Trade and Development.

The downside of organic farming

Organic farming may benefit biodiversity and long-term soil quality, but an organic diet is not necessarily less greenhouse gas intensive. Read our background guide on organic foods.

Growing food places a hidden drain on water supplies

Apparently, simply knocking back a pint of beer and a burger on bread with cheese and egg is responsible for using up enough water to fill a fish pond (about 2800 litres). Waterwise estimates that we use more than 200,000,000 litres per second to grow our food - and that 15,000 litres go into making a single kilo of beef. To make matters worse, a lot of this water comes from water-starved parts of the world like South Africa. Read the Waterwise report (Hidden Waters, 2007). And read more about the climate impact of meat and other foods here.

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What's stopping me?

"I'm confused! The weekly shop would take a fortnight if I had to work all this out."

Science doesn't have all the answers yet and the mixed messages can seem daunting. But the picture will get clearer soon, and in the meantime a little knowledge and common sense will help you make sensible choices.

"Does buying British mean the developing world suffers?"

According to some critics, yes. The International Trade Centre says that shunning air-freighted imports in the name of climate change could penalise many poor countries since the highly perishable goods they produce cannot be transported by other means. And the financial impact could be significant: the organic export trade alone from developing countries to Europe is worth about $100 million annually.

That said, our penchant for flash-flown foreign produce has environmental and social implications for developing countries beyond bank balances. Many cash crops destined for European mouths are grown in some of the hungriest (and thirstiest) countries on Earth - and divert precious water away from the mouths that need it most. In fact, a study by the Danish Institute of International Studies, found that the world's poorest countries account for about 80% of the organic foods exported by plane to the UK. Read more about it in this report by the International Trade Centre (The Economic Impact of Restricting Airfreight Imports to the EU) for more detail.

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How do I do it?

  • Make a habit of doing your shopping for seasonal food at your local farmers' market. But remember to look for seasonal foods because markets provide food grown locally both in out-of-season greenhouses and fields
  • Check which foods are in season: BBC Food in Season, Eat the Seasons and Sustnable
  • Print out a seasonal food calendar from Cheshire Food or check out Defra's calendars for seasonal salad and fruit, vegetables and meats
  • About a quarter of all fruits and veggies harvested are not consumed - so try to avoid food that spoils easily as it's more likely to have been flown to the UK and refrigerated - and it's also more likely to end up in landfill producing methane instead of in your belly
  • Try to cut down on packaging emissions by avoiding pre-prepared, trimmed or chopped produce, e.g. fruit salads - and recycle what you do buy
  • Dig out low-emissions veggies. Root veggies and brassicas like sprouts and broccoli are particularly climate-friendly
  • When in doubt, avoid Mediterranean veggies like tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and aubergines in the winter - that's when they're grown in heated greenhouses rather than fields
  • Moderate how much meat and dairy you eat
  • Compost waste food (but check first what type of food you can add)

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Nick, Massachusetts, USA 2009-04-29

I buy the best tomatoes from a local farm only a mile from where I live. I tend to buy the "Ugly" (or seconds) tomatoes because they are cheaper, Taste the same, but do not have the same appearance as the First tomatoes. I will eat these all season along with cucumbers and corn from the same farm. I buy the tomatoes in large boxes bring them home and can them myself. This allows me to use local tomatoes year round in pasta sauces, pizza sauce, and many other foods. Because I canned them in season there is no need to buy imported, out-of-season ones from the supermarket. Canning seems to be becoming a lost art in this era of Fast-Food and any-food-any-time-of-year supermarkets.

Just some "food for thought" I guess. If you aren't willing to sacrifice your favorite foods because they are not in season, try canning.

worzel_gummidge, London 2009-02-19

I agree with the point about local UK beans versus Kenyan beans. However close proximity does not always mean better. Take for example the fact that roses flown into the UK from Kenya have a smaller carbon footprint than those grown in the Netherlands. The reason? Natural light and heating in Kenya, artificial light and heating in the Netherlands. To make an informed choice we have to know all the facts, do your own research and understand better the import/export markets. My father grew up on a market garden in Somerset, selling flowers, fruit and vegetables and it's such a shame that no one seems to be able to reintroduce these back into the UK. It would be great to see a government campaign to buy seasonal fruit, flowers and vegetables - and might make more people aware of the choices available.

Baz, Shrewsbury 2009-02-08

We are currently in the act of converting one end of our cellar into a pantry, it's allways cool and never colder than 6 degrees c. This year we are going to grow our own veggies, the apple trees are already established and we intend to keep the produce in our cellar untill we eat it. Hopefully no additional cooling wll be required in the cellar, ventilation will be by the air vents the building control man insisted we fitted when we built the house. Reggie, you can't get more local than this!

Reggie, Taunton 2008-10-05

Surely there should be a "shop local" and a "buy local food" bloom in the transport and food sections. Both of these I do, but cannot bloom these. They are not quite covered by the actions already there. Please

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes. navigation


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