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When local food helps fight climate change — and when it doesn’t

Observer file photo Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. Buying local, or growing your own, is a better alternative - and tastier, too.
Observer file photo
Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. Buying local, or growing your own, is a better alternative – and tastier, too.

By Luc Reid

Special to the Observer

We Vermonters have it made when it comes to local food. While our growing season is short, we’re long on Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, f1arms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands  and gardens.

After Hurricane Sandy, I got interested in local food as a way to help fight climate change. On average, food is the fourth-biggest household contributor to climate damage (after transportation, electricity and combined home heating and hot water). Unfortunately, it turns out that “local” doesn’t always mean “low climate impact,” but a few pointers can help us know when it does.

Veg out

One of the best ways to lower our food footprint is to eat more plant products and less meat. For example, according to carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee, half a pound of strawberries grown nearby in season has only about 1/20 of the climate change impact of, say, a cheeseburger. Cows (as well as sheep, goats, llamas, buffalo, deer, etc.) eat grass and emit methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as bad as CO2. This gives dairy products a larger footprint and puts red meat among the worst climate offenders compared to pork (not as bad), poultry and fish (better), or in-season vegetables and grains (best). Some plant-based alternatives to meat include tofu, seitan (“wheat meat”) and beans.

Though there are very good things about local grass-fed beef, it unfortunately has about the same climate impact as anonymous beef from far-away factory farms.

Eat it when it’s growing

Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. For example, hothouse or air-freight strawberries are almost 12 times as bad for the climate as local, seasonal ones. Other big offenders include out-of-season cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

Some plant foods from distant parts aren’t as bad. Bananas, for instance, are usually shipped by low-impact methods like boats, and don’t have to be rushed or refrigerated, so their footprint is quite small.

In Vermont, we have root vegetables, apples and preserved plant foods (like pickles, dried tomatoes, kimchi and frozen strawberries) available throughout the winter. Additionally, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, which offers weekly food pickups throughout the state, grows foods like spinach and mesclun right through the winter in greenhouses that are heated with used vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels.

Get dirty

Of course, there’s no fresher, more local food than what comes from your own back yard. Gardening isn’t always easy, but it can be a fun and relaxing hobby at home or in a community garden, and there’s no way to beat your own fresh corn or tomatoes. Other great home growing opportunities include blueberries, hazelnuts and stone fruits like plums. Even if you don’t have a yard, it’s often easy to grow things in containers, and beyond the great taste, eating your own produce connects you with your food in a way nothing else can.

Even home grown food isn’t free of climate impact. But careful use of water and materials, and avoiding chemical fertilizers and sprays, can keep that footprint small.

Here are a few tips for shrinking your climate foodprint:

Include more plant foods and less meat in your diet

Local and regional foods usually have a smaller impact than those from far away

Organic foods are usually more climate-friendly than non-organic ones

Poultry and some kinds of fish and shellfish have a lower footprint than pork and dairy, which in turn have a lower footprint than red meat

Buy no more than you need and use what’s in your refrigerator to keep waste down and save money.

Sustainable Williston (SustainableWilliston.org) works on issues like clean energy, water quality, and planting trees and writes about a different sustainability topic for the Observer each month.