Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Harvesting, Buying and Eating Locally

While I personally remain unconvinced about the phenomenon known as Global Warming, I do feel that we in the West consume well over our fair share of the world's bounty. A bit of restraint does me some good ("Anticip... ation" to quote Frankenfurter from Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Picture Show), and I am sure I am not alone in enjoying something more if I have had to wait for it.

The BBC have an interesting page called "Bloom" on their website, at, which looks rationally at the local vs imported food argument.

They pose a couple of questions: is local food always better for the climate? (not always). Does buying [local] mean the developing world suffers? (sometimes, yes).

How things are grown, stored and processed is equally as important as where it comes from and how far it has travelled to get to the person who eats it. The BBC say "local food that's been grown out of season in heated greenhouses, heavily fertilised, harvested using fuel-heavy machinery and stored for months in fridges can be worse for the climate than produce grown abroad using the sun's heat, picked by humans and flown to the UK. Take the green bean. Kenyan beans grown and hand-picked in fields require climate-intensive air-freighting to get to your plate - yet research suggests that they can produce fewer emissions than British beans that have been grown in greenhouses and depend heavily on machinery and synthetic fertilisers." Greenhouses are a significant and growing contributor to climate change.

On the topic of apples, the BBC say "Similarly, British apples are not always a low-emissions alternative to imported apples - due to the way in which they are 'kept alive' in energy-intensive fridges for up to a year after harvest. In fact, an apple in August can have more carbon on its conscience than an apple that has been freshly harvested in New Zealand and shipped to the UK."

"Perhaps more surprisingly still, even New Zealand lamb, according to research at Lincoln University, can have a lower climate impact than lamb farmed in Britain because of the efficiency of New Zealand's livestock industry - even including transport emissions from New Zealand to the UK. But that doesn't make it a low-carbon option, warn critics - it just means that both have a damaging impact."

Aside from the food we buy, we also need to think about OUR drive to the supermarket, as this is also a 'carbon-intensive' activity. The BBC quotes Gareth Thomas, the British Minister for Trade and Development, who says "driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK."

What we are really talking about is the West's megalithic consumption of petroleum products. We can say 'carbon footprint' until the cows come home, but we are talking about oil. Petrol, diesel, oil, kerosene and lubricants to seed, tend, harvest, process, transport and store our food. The more ingredients an item has, the more likely it is to have a very, very high oil cost.

Barbara Kingsolver in her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" examined US agriculture's oil consumption, and found food production gurgled down 17% of the US's oil (2007, p. 5). Only 20% (3.4% in total) of that oil gets the harvest to the farm gate. A whopping 80%, or 13.6% of the US's oil consumption is burned on the road, in factories, in the air and in someone's warehouse, waiting for Americans to drive and buy their edibles at the supermarket (and the consumer's supermarket trip is not factored into the barrel).

I am blowed if I want to eat an American apple -metaphorically - dripping with oil. Much of the tinned fruit consumed in New Zealand is processed in China from enzyme-stripped fruit. If you think that cardboard taste it is your taste buds failing you, think again.

Read food labels. There are real give-aways, like the catch-all "Made from local and imported ingredients". Most Kiwis will remember the controversy about Cadbury Schweppes larding their chocolate with palmoline (mmm, that lovely taste of soapy chocolate); the Sanitarium Chinese peanut butter; the Barker's-owned Anathoth Raspberry Jam full of berries from who knows where.

For those of us who want to attempt to lessen our impact on the planet, one of the easiest things we can do is to eat food that is grown locally, outdoors with as little chemical treatment as possible in well-nourished soil, purchased at the gate and largely eaten in season. What remains of our seasonal local harvest then can be stored for winter and spring; bottled, dried or frozen.

Preparing summer produce for storage is very therapeutic. I have just been bottling tomatoes, apples, pears, beetroot and plums for the winter. While that is not going to feed us for the winter, the 100 jars of preserves we have processed will reduce our oil consumption this year, and put less money into H J Heinz' pockets over winter (Heinz owns the Wattie's brand, Kraft Foods owns nearly everything else and between these two American behemoths, they sew up a goodly percentage of Kiwi supermarket facings).

We are not angels or evangelists; we live rurally, work in town and we commute by car. We aren't aiming to be perfect, just more thoughtful.

  • BBC (2009). Climate Change - Bloom - buying seasonal, local foods. Retrieved 23 March 2011 from
  • Kingsolver, B., (2007). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our year of seasonal eating. USA: HarperCollins Inc


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