another environmental question

I know that an important step we can each take towards reducing greenhouse emissions is buying locally grown produce. I want to know: how many of you do that?

Do you buy only locally grown produce? Where do you buy it? Do you not eat fruits or vegetables that have to be flown to your area?

How do you weigh locally grown vs organic but grown in a distant region in your shopping decisions?

Do you extend the locally-grown mantra to other products that can be imported without refrigeration?

I'll go first.

In recent years, I've been making an effort to buy more organic produce, knowing that the more people who buy it, the more supermarkets will stock it, and the more producers will use organic methods. I do this equally for labour (the effects of conventional pesticides on farm workers), health and environmental concerns. (My niece E should be proud that she has influenced me so much on this.)

I also make an effort to buy local produce, and I always have. Growing up, my family was able to buy produce from local farm stands all summer. I know the immense difference in quality. For a long time, I couldn't even eat certain fruits or vegetables (especially corn, peaches or tomatoes) from a supermarket; they tasted like cardboard to me. And I know first-hand how it helps the local economy and ecology.

That's the plus side.

On the downside, if I want to eat fruits or vegetables that are not available locally-grown, I buy them anyway. That is, at our local Loblaws, if there are apples from Ontario and apples from the US, I choose the Ontario apples.

But if the grapes look good and they're only grown in the US, I buy them. I buy pineapples and bananas that are grown nowhere near here, but are organically grown. Before the Ontario asparagus showed up, I was buying asparagus from Peru (purposely - in Peru we learned that asparagus is a new crop that's helping small farmers survive).

I don't know what, if anything, to do about this. There's no farmer's market for us (there is a large farmer's market in Mississauga, but it takes place while we're at work), so there's no convenient alternative source for produce. And I'm not prepared to give up eating a variety of healthy produce that I enjoy. Not yet, anyway. I might get there.

These decisions bring further questions, that some of you probably know the answer to.

Does distance matter? Are grapes from California better than grapes from Chile or Brazil? Or once it's non-local, it's non-local, period?

I assume, also, that the product matters. I saw fresh salmon from Chile, and thought of the energy consumed in importing that fish, fresh, from such a distance. Where, say, olive oil imported from a Mediterranean country doesn't have to be kept cold and fresh during transport. So buying fresh salmon from Chile would be worse, environmentally speaking, than buying Greek olive oil. (Leaving aside the issue of the mercury in the fish...)

OK, your turn. What do you do? How do you do it? Be honest.


Scott M. said...

Aargh! Blogger ate my comment. Here I go again.

I'm lucky enough to live admist some of the best farming land in Ontario, near the Holland River. During season I'll pick up produce fresh off the field that day at a local farmer, and I pay much less for it (though I usually leave a huge tip).

At the store, I'll buy product of Ontario if available. If not, I'll buy whatever is available if I want that product. Given the ability to know where product is from I'd pick more locally grown stuff (say New York State) over far-away imports (say California). Unfortunately, most produce says "Product of USA" which, I hear, is a fairly large place.

Scott M. said...

Of course I *should* (but never will) buy the local produce when available and preserve it for off season.

James said...

To be honest, we don't eat a lot of produce at home. What we do is usually simple salady things, plus Granny Smith apples (I don't really like other apples much). Lori, having been raised by Newfies, doesn't eat much vegetable matter at all.

Distance does matter in terms of carbon footprint and other emissions. Anything that has to be flown or transported by ship has a higher emissions profile than something that came in by train or truck, for example. But I don't know the math to figure out at what point a short flight is better or worse than a long train-trip, or train vs. truck.

Scott M. said...

Of course one could also imagine the Rhinocerous party of Canada would have a number of valuable ideas to contribute...

Ferdzy said...

We probably manage about 80% local (by which I mean "produce of Ontario") versus 20% foreign produce. However, at that point we get a little weird and would rather buy produce from anywhere but the U.S. We are doing a "soft" boycott of American everything: if we can get it from anywhere else, we will take the anywhere-else product over American, but if American is the only option, we will take it. If I buy something shipped in from afar, my first choice is organic, especially things like lemons, but there is a limit to how much I will spend on that.

I will take local non-organic produce over shipped organic produce, on the advice of "our" local organic farmer.

We've been getting our chicken (fresh) and fish (frozen) from Costco, but our beef and lamb comes from an organic farmer who is also a member of our Meeting (church). After this melamine thing, we are thinking of trying to get chicken from him again, but it's very expensive compared to the conventional, and doesn't come in neat skinned and boned parts - when ya order a chicken ya gets a chicken.

We've ordered a turkey from him this year, but it's going to be $100! *gasps and faints* (Normally when I want a turkey I buy one the day after thanksgiving for half-price.)

We bought a big freezer when we started ordering meat, and I try to freeze a lot of seasonal fruit to get us through the winter, as well as making pickles and jam. Sometimes, if we are feeling ambitious and aren't swamped with work, we can tomato products as well. It's something we enjoy doing together as a little project. It only happens about every three years or so though.

L-girl said...

Thanks for the answers so far! Very good.

Of course I *should* (but never will) buy the local produce when available and preserve it for off season.

No you shouldn't. Not unless you completely change your lifestyle. Modern life (office work, commute, etc.) does not afford that time. Plus it's not like preserved produce is the same as fresh.

We are doing a "soft" boycott of American everything: if we can get it from anywhere else, we will take the anywhere-else product over American, but if American is the only option, we will take it.

Nice! Good going.

Unfortunately much of the produce from non-US countries comes from farms owned by US concerns. Pineapples and bananas are almost always from US companies. As you probably know, wars have been fought and governments toppled to protect their interests.

L-girl said...

If I buy something shipped in from afar, my first choice is organic . . . I will take local non-organic produce over shipped organic produce, on the advice of "our" local organic farmer.

This is very helpful for me, thanks.

M@ said...

I'm a bit of a food enthusiast, so I like to buy local and I'm in a great area for doing that. Unfortunately, I also don't buy much in the way of prepared foods, so I do end up stopping at the supermarket a lot of the time and just picking up something (pork, chicken, whatever) to cook for supper.

For vegetables, I do have two awesome markets in the area. Many vendors there just buy from the same wholesalers that supply the supermarkets, of course; other vendors, however, can tell you what time that day (or the previous night) the produce was picked. There's enough local stuff that I can get almost anything I want, and I will go in looking for local produce and figure out what I can make from there. It's kind of cool to talk to the guy who grows it, too. (You and Allan should come out some Wednesday and check the market out!)

Supermarkets around here suck for good local stuff, I find (especially our Loblaws clone, Zehrs). If I wanted to buy Ontario only, even in summer, I'd have to make a lot of sacrifices. But I'm pretty much the same as everyone else: I'll take Ontario over anywhere else, then Canadian, then wherever else.

(When I worked in restaurants, we always hated to get the romaine lettuce from Quebec, and much preferred the California stuff. The Quebec lettuce was incredibly dirty and often moldy. I can't think of why that would be, except that maybe the California growers are better at shipping delicate vegetables?)

Btw, I'm really happy to learn that Peruvian asparagus is helping the people there. It's only been around the past five years or so I think, and it's fabulous -- cheap, tender asparagus in the winter! Who knew!

One other action I've taken is to put in a good-sized vegetable garden this year. Here's hoping it'll do well.

Scott M. said...

Hey M@... do you live in Keswick?

Our Zehrs here also seems to source food from as far away as possible... rather funny considering the abundance of local food during the growing season.

L-girl said...

M@, I'm envious of your markets! I've never managed to live an area with good access to that. Well, I do now, but as I said, it's only on weekends, ruling us out.

There are excellent farmers markets in NYC - including a famous one at Union Square where many top restaurants shop, all NY State farmers. But I never lived close enough to any of them to shop, nothing more than a novelty if I were in the area.

Now that I'm more accustomed to suburban life, I'm planning ahead more to combine shopping trips and cut down on emissions that way. Rather than plan dinner on a night-by-night basis, I try to plan a few nights ahead, and go to the store - er, that is, send Allan to the store - with the appropriate list.

Btw, I'm really happy to learn that Peruvian asparagus is helping the people there. It's only been around the past five years or so I think, and it's fabulous -- cheap, tender asparagus in the winter! Who knew!

Oh yeah! The Peruvian farmers have some amazing challenges because of their terrain - they can only farm by hand. They still use terraces like their Incan ancestors! (Some of the same land with the original terraces reinforced.) It's painstaking and expensive, of course.

But OTOH, the differences in altitudes with one farm create microclimates and they can simultaneously plant several different crops.

Everything is grown organically there. The land can't support any other way.

M@, good luck with your garden. That's something I would like to do in theory. Whether or not I'll ever want to devote the time to it in reality is another story.

M@ said...

Scott, I live in Cambridge. Do they have Zehrs in Keswick? I did not know that, though I've been up there a couple of times.

Laura, you're right about the travel aspect of it. I don't plan ahead enough for meals a lot of the time, and when the freezer is empty I do end up at the supermarket a little too often. But I drive far too much as it is for work -- supermarket visits are a drop in the bucket, unfortunately.

L-girl said...

Laura, you're right about the travel aspect of it.

I meant that in a "I'm trying to do what I can" sense, not in a "you should do this" sense.

I come from such an urban perspective, where meals are a nightly decision, and often end up in a restaurant, or else are shopped for that day. But they're shopped for by foot and subway!

Now that we drive everywhere, I had to get used to combining trips - to save gas, and also to save time spent driving around the wilds of Mississauga. In general I'm good at combining errands, but shopping for dinner was not included in that until now.

Now what I need to get good at is staying away from this blog and getting some work done!!

Scott M. said...

Dawn and I have managed to get by with one supermarket trip a week, sometimes one every two weeks.

I had to learn this skill quickly when I was working up north -- I could only go into town once every month, and I could send a list down once every two weeks. In the off weeks, I could only get Milk, Eggs and Bread when the Park Superintendant or A.Superintendant came up (and occasionally I couldn't get even that as they didn't always come up).

M@ said...

I meant that in a "I'm trying to do what I can" sense, not in a "you should do this" sense.

Oh, I didn't take it that way -- it's something I've been thinking of more and more. I really do drive far too much and I'm working on working from home much more over time. It's a long-term process to change your lifestyle that much though.

There are a lot of good reasons to plan ahead for meals, too -- we tend to make less healthy compromises when I'm running through the market trying to find something to eat, and there's little question it's generally more expensive.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

I buy locally grown produce not only because it's more environmentally sound, but because it tastes better. I don't refrain from buying things that can't be grown locally (I will never, ever give up my tropical fruit), but anything that can be is bought at our local farmer's market once a week.

On the other hand, it's really easy for us to do this--the largest farmer's market in the province is within walking distance from my house. So I'm not in the least bit critical of people who make different choices on this one.

Nikolas said...

A number of my friends use http://www.frontdoororganics.com/index.html and Mason and are considering switching to it once we move.

It's organic, locally grown and if we really need a speciality vegetable we can go to the market, but I think this is a good way to support local organic farmers and reduce part of our carbon footprint

MSS said...

This is something that consumes--pun very much intended--a lot of my thinking and energies, and about which I have blogged.

I eat mostly local as well as organic, which is to say that I grow my own according to organic practices! What I do not grow comes from farmers markets, whenever possible. That is pretty easy here in southern California.

I will definitely say that I lean towards local over organic when I can't have it both ways. I see no point in buying contra-seasonal fruit such as grapes and plums from Chile or New Zealand, whether organic or not. There simply is no way that this is going to be high quality. It has to be picked long before it is ripe. Besides, take it from someone who really does grow a lot of stuff (120+ different fruit varieties) that any variety capable of being shipped many thousands of miles has been bred for, well, its ability to be shipped many thousands of miles. Flavor is well down the commercial breeder's list of priorities.

Note that the "fresh salmon" that L-girl mentioned from Chile is almost certainly farm-raised. I am no expert, but my understanding is that salmon (and other fish) farming is pretty environmentally insensitive. The fish are also fed things that you might want to think twice about consuming yourself, given that you are the secondary eater of whatever the fish are eating.

On the general theme, I recommend the video by the founder of Whole Foods and a second one with Michael Pollan that TikkunGer has linked to (as well as his discussion).

As far as the global-warming impact of buying local vs. shipped long distance, I imagine it is pretty minimal. Much more compelling (for me, anyway) is to buy things that have been grown by small and medium scale farmers who use environmentally sensitive growing techniques. Besides, it is by no means clear to me that the local grower who drives some large pickup many miles every week from farm to markets is contributing less to global warming per produce item you buy from him than the mega-grower who ships by sea. Not all produce from far away is transported by air, and even that that is may have a fairly low CO2 impact per "fruit mile." I just do not know. (This issue is addressed a bit in the video mentioned above.)

Sorry for going on and on, but this really is an issue I think about a lot (obviously!). Thanks for raising it.

impudent strumpet said...

All my shopping decisions are made based on laziness and picky eating. During the summer I buy my produce from a farmer's market that's near my office because it has the most consistently good produce, but if the farmer's market weren't right there I wouldn't make the effort. I tend to buy Ontario fruit (except for oranges and stuff) because it's most likely to meet my fussy standards - I don't like peaches that are crunchy or strawberries that have white in the middle etc. etc. some picky quirk for every type of food. If they have what I want at the market I get it there. If they have Ontario fruit in the grocery store, I'll get that. But it's not principle, it's pickiness.

On the flip side, I'm disgustingly lazy about washing and cutting up vegetables, so I tend to buy pre-made salads and frozen veggies. It's more expensive and increases my footprint, but experience shows that if I diligently fill my fridge with veggies that need to be washed and cut up, they'll rot away while I scarf down salty snacks.

I've never actually had to make the decision about whether to buy organic or not, since the things I want to buy seem to come in either organic or non-organic, not both. If I want sodium-free tomato sauce, I have to buy organic. If I want a McIntosh apple in February, I have to buy non-organic. (Aside: in my unsuccessful search for McIntosh apples today, I noticed that Loblaw's organic apples are imported from Chile, which seems a bit far to me.)

Basically, eating food that meets my fussy standards and not going out of my way to do my shopping are both really important lifestyle things that make me very happy, so that makes the decision for me. The end result isn't too bad seeing as how it's based on pickiness and laziness.

Ferdzy said...

Well, it's not apple season. Even if you find Ontario apples right now, they've been stored for a long time and won't be great. MacIntosh apples in particular aren't good storage apples. If I really had to have an apple right now, I'd get the Chilean, which will be in season there. Or stew a local one with some fresh seasonal rhubarb to perk it up. But at this point, I'd rather hang in there until the local strawberries hit the market.

I won't buy out-of-season imported strawberries, partly because they are soaked in pesticides and partly because, unlike the Peruvian asparagus which I confess I buy regularly in the winter, they are awful.

We get strawberries from a local pick-yer-own, and the farmer is very frank: "The good ones are in this field; the big ones are in that field." Strawberries need some heft to ship, and the bigger they are the more like acidulated cardboard they are.

Ferdzy said...

By the way, I just posted on my blog about our trip to the open house at our f/Friends' farm. There are some pictures of good Ontario food on the hoof and claw, as well as a link to the farm site.

L-girl said...

It's very interesting and cool to see the range of habits and choices here.

As I read these, I see I use an even bigger mix than I first realized. Like ImpStrump, I buy (and LOVE) pre-made salads, for their ease and how it helps us eat more salads. Like I/P, I will never give up eating certain fruit (for me, bananas, pineapples and a few others) no matter where they come from.

I wish I could never eat a less-than-perfectly-delicious peach or strawberry or tomato, but I do still sometimes end up with chalky or mealy or white, hard fruit inside.

MSS is absolutely correct that most fish you can buy conventionally is farm-raised, and that comprises both health standards and the environment. However, I try to eat fish (including sushi) for many reasons, and I don't have the time or money to find wild-caught fish.

One reason I enjoy seeing this range of habits is because I am really bothered by people who are smug about these kinds of things.

In the world most of us inhabit, it's impossible to always make perfectly responsible choices. Most things are trade-offs, and we try to do the best we can. And we may feel greater responsibility to different things. Are your local farmers more important than the workers picking fruit in Chile? Is your health (eating more vegetables, or eating a variety of foods, which may not be available where you live) less important than where your food comes from? An obvious answer to one of us is not to another.

I think we just have to do the best we can, weighing these decisions, being mindful of them, without obsessing on them. And hopefully without judging other people's choices too harshly - if only because those judgments don't help anyone make better choices.

The main reason my environmental/food activist niece was able to help me make better choices was because she was so non-judgmental, so non-critical. She educated me without looking down on what I already did.

L-girl said...

Oops, two more things I wanted to say.

Nick, we used to use a service like that in NYC - organically grown produce that was delivered weekly. It didn't work out for us for many reasons. I tried several times to make it work, but it didn't. I'll be interested in hearing how this works out for you. Let me know, ok?

MSS, I have also read most (all?) of Michael Pollan's writing. He used to be a big influence on me - the corn/beef expose was amazing. But he lost me along the way. I felt he became too out of touch with what most people are able to do - speaking to a very small, elite audience.

L-girl said...

By the way, people buy fruit out of season because they want to eat the fruit. It's pretty simple. It may not be completely responsible, but it's a pretty simple process of desire and gratification.

Out-of-season fruit is not as good as fruit in season, but when you don't live where the fruit is grown, in any season, it doesn't much matter.

I don't buy apples out-of-season because I grew up in apple country, so I'm accustomed to thinking in terms of seasons for apples.

But I eat pineapple year round. I've never lived where pineapple is grown locally, the pineapple I buy is always delicious (to varying degrees, based on luck of the draw), so I don't even know when pineapple season is.

People in California may forget this about the rest of us. :)

ErinOrtlund said...

I don't tend to buy organic at the supermarket, except when weaning my kids onto solid foods.

However, I have just started a garden! So I will soon have my own organic potatoes, tomatoes, beans, zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, and rhubarb! It's a start.

Granny said...

What I should do and what I do are not always the same thing.

I live in the middle of the San Joaquin valley of California (Grapes of Wrath territory) so buying most locally grown produce is easy. That's the good part.

I can't usually afford organic. That's the bad part.

I do watch the sales, we have a fair size Farmer's Market twice a week, and when I can manage organic I do.

You may slap me on the wrist now.

L-girl said...

I can't usually afford organic. That's the bad part.

You can't do what you can't do.

I never bought organic produce in NYC - it was just too expensive. (It may be a little better now.)

This is what I meant, above, about elitism within the food activist set. Telling people they ought to buy strawberries that cost almost $3.00 a pint is not helpful. For most people that is just not an option.

I'm only starting to buy organic now that the prices have come down (in our Loblaws the price difference is minimal) and now that I have a bit more money.

L-girl said...

Hi Erin! I see you are another US transplant. Welcome to wmtc - and good luck with your garden. :)

Scott M. said...

I don't buy apples out-of-season because I grew up in apple country, so I'm accustomed to thinking in terms of seasons for apples.

Ha! Same thing with me and corn. I'll only eat corn-on-the-cob one month a year. I'll eat frozen niblets the rest of the year, but I refuse to rip open a husk of a cob that wasn't picked on that day, preferably within the last 4 hours.

L-girl said...

Same thing with me and corn.

Me too! Is the corn season here only one month long? I'm used to three good months.

Wild English Rose said...

You seem to have hit a nerve here!
Personally I try to buy organic where possible - and now eat a lot less meat than I used too as it is expensive, but I think the taste is better so a little goes a long way (in a pie, say, padded out with veg). I almost always buy organic British meat and will change what I am cooking if the supermarket has run out. With vegetables I prioritise locally grown over organic. With fruit I buy local apples etc. and fair trade bananas as these are not grown in the UK.
I am not sure I entirely agree with you about fish - wild caught fish can sometimes be caught in an unsustainable way depleting fish stocks with the obvious knock on effects on the environment and the economy of fishing communities - although there are now some sustainable fishing logos you can look out for - but I tend to buy organically farmed salmon rather than wild.
I think the imported product I buy most is wine, English wine is available - but in quite small quantities and is not usually available in supermarkets and normal off licences, and as a lot of wine sold here is from Australia/NZ this is about as bad as it can get in terms of food miles!! - although it is shipped rather than air freight and is often bottled here I think.
On the subject of preserving fruit when it is in season to eat in the winter, my mother used to do this when I was younger - when I arrived at university and mentioned this to a friend he thought it was hilarious and 'don't you know the war's over?' became a bit of a catchphrase for a while!

Ferdzy said...

Corn season here should be pretty close to three months; two for sure. I think the first shows up mid July and it should go through most of September.