Before you bite into that carrot, STOP. It has traveled 1,838 miles from California to your plate. This means that tons of harmful carbon was had been emitted from the trucks and airplanes that brought the innocent carrot to your plate.
A simple carrot is contributing to global warming in significant, but unseen ways. The United States is the biggest emitter of harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to the gradual destruction of the Earth. While the U.S. makes up only 4 percent of the world’s population, it is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emission. It was criticized for protecting its economic interest when it refused to join the Kyoto Protocol in 2006, an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. While the federal government is slow in working towards an agreement, the people in America are responding to Mother Nature’s fury.
In recent years, there has had been a push to consume local produce, or food that is harvested in environmentally -friendly ways. A carrot produced in Washington State requires only 27 food miles to reach its consumer. Food miles are calculated by the distance from the point of production to the point of use over the weight of the food. Supermarkets that sell solely local or organic food such as Whole Foods Market and Puget Consumer Coop (PCC) are becoming more mainstream. Farmers’ markets, where local farmers peddle their fresh goods, are sprouting all over the states.
However, just how much do we know about eating local produce? How much are we willing to alter our lifestyle to save the Earth?
“It’s too much a hassle to try to eat in such a goody-two-shoe fashion. I just grabbed whatever that is convenient and cheap,” said Evan Thomas, a finance senior at UW.
Like Thomas, many have the misconception that eating local food requires extra effort. However, there are simple steps that can make it easier to do.
But firstly, one needs to understand the term “local produce”, which can be rather vague, says Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager. “It does not necessarily mean grown sustainably without pesticides or grown to high organic standards,” she adds. It can be grown using synthetic fertilizers or be genetically modified.
The chemicals from the fertilizers are absorbed into the soil and mixed with underground water. When the water flows into the rivers, it is hazardous for marine creatures and contaminates our drinking water.
Also, does local mean food produced in the United States? Or does it mean food produced in Washington State? Whole Foods Market’s definition of “local” refers to places that are within seven hours drive away from Washington. This includes Oregon, Idaho and some parts of Canada.
But where can we start? It seemed that gone are the days when the conventional grocery stores were lined with local produce. When was the last time you ate something with the proud label: “Made in USA”
Grapes? From Chile. Bananas? From Columbia. It seems that the convenient Safeway is not a good place to start. Do we have to travel a few miles just to get local produce? “I’m too busy! I don’t have a car!”, some will complain. However, with just a little knowledge and observation, shopping for local and organic produce in a conventional supermarket is as easy as ABC.
“Check the labels of the food to see where it comes from,” says Lynne Varner, a recent convert to local and organic food. The Seattle Times journalist was determined to reduce pollution by eating only food that is produced within a 100-mile radius from where she lives east of Seattle after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetables, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver documented how her family ate whatever they produced in their own garden for a year.
Varner points out that fruits have labels on them indicating the country of origin production. For example, a packet of grapes from Safeway will have a small print at the bottom, “Product of Chile” If there is no information given, knowledge of the region and season’s produce will help you identify if the food is imported. A kiwi is best grown in New Zealand and a banana, in Mexico or Venezuela. This will help you estimate the food miles and carbon “foodprint” in your food. Websites such as http://www.foodnetwork.com give a comprehensive list of fruits and vegetables of different seasons.
But are we going to eat just the winter season produce? Fret not. There are various homemade recipes to enjoy non-seasonal food but they take planning.
“Put your berries in a zip-lock bag and leave it into the freezer in summer,” says Brad Flannery, Whole Foods Market Produce Department team leader. That way, you can still enjoy your berries in winter. Dehydration and canning are two other options, but are more expensive and laborious, he adds.
However, it is ultimately the choice of the consumers, says Flannery. Varner makes an exception for food that is beyond her 100-mile boundary if “what I eat helps poorer countries.”
For those who find searching for local produce in Safeway akin to finding a needle in the haystack, a grocery store dedicated to local produce and organic food would be a better alternative.
Whole Foods Market, which has five stores in Washington, has a wide selection of local produce from 2,000 different small-scale regional farms. Since the harvest travels a shorter distance to the market, it requires fewer food miles and emits fewer greenhouse gases. Whole Foods tries to model after the conventional supermarkets by selling the local and organic versions of snacks such as Pop Tart’s. Shoppers are spoiled with for choices for local beers, cereals, chocolates, condiments, etc.
But shopping at these niche grocery stores may cost more, says Milton Artis, the marketing specialist at Whole Foods Market. “The price differs from a few cents to a dollar more than non-local produce or non-organic food, depending on the type of food,” he said. In addition, small-scale local farms lack the economies of scale to lower costs of production.
Similarly for the farmers’ markets, a pound of broccoli costs a dollar more than what is offered at in Safeway.
Abigail Huang, a Singapore exchange student to UW, says although she loves visiting the Farmers’ Market, which operates in the University District every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., she gets her groceries from Safeway instead. “Cost is a huge barrier,” she said.
Artis, however, looks at the long-term value of eating local and organic food. “Eating local helps sustain the local economy and reduce global warming. Organic food has a higher content of nutrients,” he said.
Safeway, Whole Foods or Farmers’ Market? How about “My Backyard Farm”? There is a wealth of information in magazines, books and the Internet on gardening. Varner picked up her gardening skills by reading Sunset Magazine, which provides tips on what grows best in the Puget Sound and how to grow them. She has successfully grown peas and tomatoes in her garden, and is planning to have her own greenhouse in the future.
As for all neophytes, persuading our family to join us in eating local is tough.
Varner talks to her seven-year-old son about the benefits of eating local produce and she suggests getting connected to other families who think likewise.
“Kids succumb to peer pressure easily. When our friends’ kids eat local produce, my son will follow suit,” says Varner.
Eating local produce may mean a palate adjustment. Varner advises us to think simple. “When you were a child, you had a limited palate. The food we ate was simple stuff like cheese and tomatoes. But as you grow up, you eat a greater variety of food, but this will increase the area where your food comes from.”
If all things fail, there are always organizations that help us get connected to a like-minded community to share recipes, tips and great food together. Slow Food USA promotes buying food from local farming communities and taking time to enjoy life and savor food.
Though not a member of Slow Food USA, Varner recognizes the joy of cooking and preparing food from scratch. “The more I make my own food, the more I like what I’m eating. I will just have my son sit in the kitchen with me, put on some music, and smell the aroma of my hard work. It’s a great anticipation to see the final result, from earth to plate.”