There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about the best diet for the planet – is flexitarian better than vegan? Can you eat meat sustainably? Is fish OK? – but within each of these diets is so much variability that it’s hard to determine one diet that could save the day whilst keeping people happy. Eating seasonally is another ‘lifestyle choice’ that has been touted as potentially being the answer to our sustainability questions, with people singing its virtues and even willing to pay more for it, but does it stand up to scrutiny?
Seasonal eating is not a new idea – in fact, before we had well established trade connections across the world, it was the only way people ate. Foods were restricted to certain times of year, and were almost always locally produced. Nowadays, there’s always something in season somewhere, so it’s hard to know what’s available in the UK (or wherever you live) at the time of purchase.
In fact, a survey by the BBC suggested that whilst 78% of Brits claim to shop seasonally, only 5% could name when blackberries ripen in the UK. In addition, it seems not all of us are even aware what ‘seasonal’ and ‘local’ means anymore, so where do we begin?
Seasonal produce tends to be foods grown ‘locally’ at the time of year that they have traditionally been abundant, without the aid of poly tunnels or artificial heating etc. Typically, there is a glut of this produce at a certain time of year when it is ‘seasonal’, thus driving prices down in that area.
So, is it important that we eat seasonally? There are a number of arguments, not all of which stand up to scrutiny, but let’s take a look at them all.
It tastes better. One of the main arguments for seasonal, locally produced foods is that it tastes better, since it is growing in conditions that it has evolved to grow optimally in. Local food should, in theory, also be fresher, as it has less far to travel to get to our plates. It’s hard to determine whether on a blind taste test any of us could truly tell the difference between a local and foreign tomato, for example, especially when cooked into a meal, but when in salads or eaten without too much flavouring, local/seasonal produce may well have more depth of flavour.
It is more nutritious.It is thought that locally produced foods have more nutrients in them, since there is a shorter time between them being picked and arriving on your table. Locally produced foods are also given more time to ripen, increasing nutrient levels further. However, this is not the case with all produce – anything that is frozen tends to preserve more nutrients than fresh counterparts, as they are frozen immediately after being picked. Similarly, more ‘hearty’foods such as apples, oranges, grapefruit and carrots are able to retain their nutrients even if they travel long distances.
Purchasing locally produced food helps support the local economy. Since much seasonal produce is also grown locally, buying seasonal helps support local farmers and aids the local economy. If you are also buying from small farms, you’re likely to get a variety of produce you might not find at your local supermarket. Buying from local farms may help boost the economy in the area.
It’s more sustainable. Or is it? It is true that if you were to grow your own vegetables in season, they would be about as sustainable as you could get (growing veg at home is historically very important too!). Thankfully, the energy demand for UK grown vegetables is generally lower than their imported equivalents, aside from a few notable exceptions. Aubergines, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes in the UK are often grown in heated greenhouses, which are extremely energy intensive. In these cases, transporting the produce from Europe over long distances consumes less primary energy than cultivating them in the UK, provided they are sourced from Europe and transported by road and sea, not air. Cabbage, celery and Brussel sprouts are environmentally the most sustainable veg we can eat in the UK, and asparagus the least.
It’s cheaper. Whilst ‘locally produced’ produce doesn’t have the same ‘premium’ price point of organic produce, people are still willing to pay more for it, despite the fact that intuitively it should be cheaper. Because of this, although intuitively it should cost less this is not always the case.
So when is it best to eat seasonally?
When eating raw/fresh produce, local and seasonal vegetables may taste noticeably better and may even be more nutritious. Foods that are able to be picked when fully ripened (as opposed to harvested early so they can be transported further) may be higher in nutrients, and thus have a better flavour. If you are eating a lot of foods raw or unflavoured, this difference in flavour may mean it is worth picking up local produce over imports.
Cabbage, celery and Brussel sprouts are the most sustainable UK produce you can eat, and should always be consumed in season if possible. Aside from that, importing vegetables grown in unheated greenhouses in Europe has a lower impact than UK vegetables cultivated in heated greenhouses (e.g. aubergines, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes), despite the transportation.
Air freighted vegetables have around a five times higher impact than domestic produce, so in the case of a choice between locally produced vegetables and those air freighted, always choose local produce.
It is important to bear in mind that despite all this information, eating vegetables is always more environmentally friendly than eating red meat, and the confusing nature of food labels should not put you off eating a plant-based or plant-heavy diet. Despite any complications, plant-based diets are the best suited to fight climate change.
In addition, food waste is one of the worst culprits for increasing food impact on our environment. Reducing food waste overall, rather than focussing on purely buying local produce, may have more of a beneficial impact on our environment. 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food and drink is wasted each year in UK households, worth £12.5 billion.
Wasting food and drink hits our wallets and is a financial drain on local authorities who have to pay for food waste collection and treatment. It has a detrimental impact on the environment, wasting the materials, water and energy used in its production. Rather than spending more on local produce, try wasting less of the produce you already have.
- Local/seasonal produce is generally seen as superior in multiple ways, from taste to sustainability to economically.
- When choosing produce, buy British except in the case where heated greenhouses are used.
- Avoid air-freighted vegetables always. Opt for sea and land-freighted vegetables when imported.
- Plants are generally better than meat, especially red meat.
- Reduce food waste. If you do one thing to eat more sustainably, stop throwing out so much food.
- Want to know the best seasonal veg boxes to get in more greens? Check out this article I wrote for Bustle.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any thoughts on locally/seasonally produced foods. It’s not nearly as simple as I was expecting!