Let’s go a little deeper on the principles of sustainable food. What does it mean that food is better if it’s local and seasonal?
The food we eat is being transported longer and for longer distance from producer to consumer [food miles], and there is increasing demand for a wide range of ready-prepared and exotic out-of-season produce. In the UK, little of the food we consume comes from local producers; and much will have been transported over great distances. Cheap non-renewable fossil fuel energy makes intensive agriculture and long-distance transportation economically viable, and has allowed food production and distribution to become global industries. Prices in shops do not reflect the environmental and social costs, such as:
- Loss of freshness, flavour and variety. Long-distance fruit and vegetable varieties tend to be chosen for their yield and keeping qualities, not for flavour, diversity or nutritional value. Many are harvested before they are ripe, and stored over long periods between production, packing and distribution, with post-harvest chemical treatments such as fungicides to increase shelf-life. Pesticides are used in storage and transport. Methyl bromide, a toxic pesticide widely used as a fumigant on food before transport, is also a significant contributor to ozone depletion. Oranges on sale in the UK are bathed in chlorinated water, washed with detergent; sprayed with a post-harvest fungicide and finally coated with wax to make them shiny.
Soft fruits and tender vegetables go off quickly – so those that travel long distances have to travel fast, usually by air, which is the most environmentally damaging form of transport.
- Increasing climate change. Food transport, even if it is not by air, creates greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to the increasingly effects of climate change. Transport is both energy-intensive and polluting. Importing food by air is particularly serious, consuming 37 times more fuel than shipping. Road freight uses four times the amount of energy per tonne/kilometre as rail, yet in the UK carries 81% goods. Road traffic is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide, accounting for 19% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions in 1991.
- Paying more for less. Instead of rewarding growers with fair prices for locally grown, seasonal produce, we pay for the costs of transporting, refrigerating and packaging associated with long- distance food.
- Loss of food security. We need to invest in a UK food and farming system that is resilient to major changes, such as surges in oil prices, extreme weather (such as floods or droughts) or competition from other crops such as biofuels. Otherwise, we face the prospect of increasing food prices and shortages.
- Loss of food culture. Distinctive varieties of fruit and vegetables and native breeds of meat are integral to our culture and landscape. Long-distance food erodes seasonal and local distinctiveness in favour of boring uniformity.
- Loss of food knowledge and skills. Most of us have lost our connection with the land and seasonal rhythms, and have little or no awareness of when and where various foods are produced.
What can you do?
- Buy fresh food when it is in season. Here a chart of seasonal vegetable products. For more information you can consult the eat seasonably or the eat the season websites.
- Buy your fresh produce from a farmers’ market or via a box scheme that guarantees that what you receive is in season;
In Leicester the farmers’ market meets on:
1st Thursday of the month in Humberstone Gate, LE1 1WA from 10am to 4pm
3rd Saturday of the month in Market Corner Leicester Market LE1 5HQ from 10am to 4pm
- Join a food coop so that you and your friends can bulk-buy seasonal produce at an affordable price.
- Ask for British fruit and vegetables produced to the standards of a recognised assurance scheme, such as certified organic, LEAF Marque8 or Assured Produce.
- When buying food that cannot be grown in the region, such as tea or bananas, buy fair trade products whenever available.
- When buying food that can be grown in the region, i.e. Europe, follow a hierarchy of purchasing priorities: locally, nationally and regionally.
Some useful links:
- Leicestershire Food Link
- Leicestershire’s Farmers’ Market
- Leicester Wholefoods with information, among others, on how to buy in bulks. They also do home delivery
- Foster, C., Green, K., Bleda, M., Dewick, P., Evans, B., Flynn, A., Mylan, J. 2006. Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Manchester Business School. Defra, London
- Sustain, Eat well and save the planet! A guide for consumers on how to eat greener, healthier and more ethical food
- Paxton, A (1994). The Food Miles Report: The dangers of long-distance food transport. SAFE Alliance, London, UK