Seasonal produce – worth the hype?

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.

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Local/seasonal veg boxes are now very much the mainstream

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.

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Historically, local produce has been very important!

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.

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How various vegetables impact the environment looking at different factors 

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The overall energy consumption of various vegetables (PED MJ/kg)

TL;DR

  • 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! 

Why I am Pescetarian

Aka a non meat eater (but I eat fish).

I have been pescetarian since I was four years old. Initially it was because I hated the taste and texture of meat but as I grew up, I also realised where meat came from and decided to label my non meat-eating habits as vegetarianism. The initial few years were a huge battle with my family – I was coerced, tricked and forced into eating meat that I didn’t want to eat, with mixed results. Some of it made me physically sick (lots of funny stories about this) and all of it made me upset and put me off meat for life. But most of all, the fight to be able to choose my own foods made me incredibly aware of what I was putting in my body.

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“Insert cute picture of cows here” – but srsly.

For many a meal is not complete without meat. I learned to cook for myself when I was around 12 because I didn’t want to be stuck with salad, vegetables and bread for every family meal. What I found was an incredible variety of cuisines out there – so many societies have amazing foods without any animal products at all, let alone without meat. A very happy side effect of giving up meat was an interest in different cuisines, experimenting with cooking and an inability to accept that vegetables are boring.

In this article I’ll try to outline the reasons I’ve stayed pescetarian for 17 years, and why you too might like to cut down on your meat consumption. I’ve never tried to turn anyone vegetarian, and I think that the idea that people have to have labels, such as ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’ or ‘pescetarian’ is the reason a lot of people don’t do anything to reduce their consumption. Every little helps, and here’s why:

Health:

I’m not saying good quality meat is bad for you in any way, but if you reduce your meat consumption to purely fresh, free range meats, you’ll be cutting out all sorts of crap from your diet. Processed meats have been linked to cancer (let’s be honest, what hasn’t) and are in the same WHO (world health organisation) class as asbestos, tobacco and alcohol. They’ve also been linked to heart disease. It’s often really difficult to find out what’s in processed meats. If you’re eating meat to up your protein intake, chicken nuggets and burgers likely aren’t the best way as they’re often filled with water, low quality off-cuts of various meats and bread/corn. For your health and extra protein you should try to buy the most expensive meat you can afford and then eat less of it (and enjoy it more). Go for meat on the bone if you must buy it – bacon, sausages, burgers, smoked meats, salami and hams are all no-goes for health reasons. In the same way that low-fat chocolate wouldn’t satisfy chocolate cravings, low quality meats encourage you to eat more of the dissatisfying stuff than the high-quality, tasty ‘real deal’. In addition, if you give up meat you’re more likely to eat more vegetables to fill the space, which can only be a good thing!

Ethical reasons:

This is a no-brainer but I know it’s often not enough for some people to go veggie. If you don’t think about it, it’s not happening, right? Sadly, I think a lot of people have the attitude that ‘everyone else is eating meat, so it’s probably ok’. What annoys me most is that people don’t think for themselves – when we’re younger, seeing an animal killed would upset us. Our desensitisation to what we’re actually eating is a key reason I think a lot of people eat meat. Watching programmes about the reality of it opens your eyes to some of the blatant cruelty that goes on. Pigs, especially, are incredibly intelligent (on par with dogs) – if you wouldn’t eat dog (and I don’t know many people who would), you probably shouldn’t be eating pigs. For this reason, I think it’s important for people to not eat meat they couldn’t kill themselves and to know exactly where the animal they’re putting into their body comes from. I believe there is no excuse for people not to eat free-range meat. If you have to eat meat, know where it comes for and go for something local and free-range. Nothing else will do.

As Sir Paul McCartney once said “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian”.

Environmental:

Raising animals for consumption requires massive amounts of land and water. This land could otherwise be kept as forests or used for crop growth: when compared to staples like potatoes, wheat and rice, beef requires 160x more land per calorie, and produces 11x more greenhouse gases. Agriculture produces around 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from the upkeep of beef cattle. Meat rich diets produce 7.2kg CO2 a day, compared to veggie and pesce diets emissions of 3.8kg and vegan diets’ 2.9kg per day. Of course, these are not set figures – if you decrease your meat (especially red meat) consumption then you will decrease your CO2 It’s a sliding scale that everyone should aim to be at the lower end of. In addition, grain fed cattle have a far greater environmental footprint than grass fed, so always go for grass fed if you MUST buy it. It’s the same thing about buying the best you can afford and eating less of it!

Moneys!:

Meat is expensive! You can reduce your yearly food bill by around 15% by cutting out meat, not to mention that in restaurants, the vegetarian foods are (almost) always cheaper. As a student this has been a godsend for me, and I always find that restaurants always put more effort into their vegetarian foods, using interesting spices and mixes of ingredients, whereas often in meat dishes they’re a lot plainer. Not an entirely biased opinion, as it’s been shared by a lot of my friends!

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An american feed-lot system. These are incredibly harmful to both the local and global environment.

As you can see, there are so many reasons why I cut out meat from my diet and have kept it out, and why you probably should cut down too. The main reasons people don’t are:

  1. A) Laziness – finding new recipes, brands, products etc DOES take time and thought, but it should be fun and interesting.
  2. B) ‘I need meat for protein’. As a sports-person, of course I know how important protein is for muscle maintenance and growth, but meat is not required by the body. Protein comes from countless other sources, both vegetarian and vegan. In addition, a lot of the meat people eat really isn’t high in protein at all, because of artificial fillers companies use to increase the weight of the meat (often water and salt).
  3. C) ‘A meal isn’t a meal without meat’ – I think this excuse is the worst, as it reflects the way we’ve been raised in today’s society. There are so many amazing cuisines around the world that have high protein, healthy diets without meat. Believing that a meal is only complete if it contains meat is a sign of people’s ignorance of the world and the amazing foods out there. Just look at Asia – some of the best food in the world contains no meat whatsoever. One of my favourite veggie recipes is this veggie lasagne.

 

I really hope this article has given you some inspiration and maybe the push you need to think about what you’re eating. If everyone reduced consumption of red meat to once a month or less and cut down on all other meats, the world would be a better place, filled with more conscious consumers. Have you made a change to your diet recently? Did it involve cutting out some meats, or animal products entirely? I’d be really interested to know what you think!

Further reading/watching:

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Being pescetarian really isn’t boring. In fact I think it opened me up to SO many more cuisines and ideas that I never would have thought of otherwise