Food resolutions for 2014 part 2: Eat seasonal produce

Happy Friday! Here is part two of my thoughts on the 14 Food Resolutions for 2014 from Food Tank.

2. Eat seasonal produce

It’s a wonderful slogan, but this point is more complex and difficult than it seems it should be.

Let’s start with complexity. Seasonal eating has become a modern day axiom, and maybe we know we ought to do it, but can’t quite articulate why. Importantly, seasonal eating alone is not an environmental silver bullet, and as with any slogan that can be carried by strong marketing, it’s imperative that we interrogate why we are pursuing seasonality in our food.

In the interests of sustainability, seasonal food production is advocated often with the justification that ‘food miles’ are limited, forgoing greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to anthropocentric climate change. This argument, however, needs some exploration. A first premise is that not all produce is suitable for growing in all parts of the world. Is it therefore better to grow tomatoes in regions where they are not climatically suited with the use of energy-intensive hot houses, or to import from a region where they can be grown in outdoor fields? Both methods could be considered seasonal if the tomatoes are sold within the season in which they were grown, regardless of their origin. (Although it’s not particularly relevant for seasonal eating, a parallel example of this trade-off is whether it is better to buy Australian rice, a water intensive crop which necessitates extensive irrigation and water consumption, or to import rice from Monsoonal countries where water is less scarce?)

This study, commissioned by the UK’s agricultural department (DEFRA) and authored by Brooks et al. in 2011, sums up some of the complexity nicely:

For low-carbon food procurement specifically, the attributes of the global definition of ‘produced in season’ could be extended to provide some ‘rules of thumb’ to guide fresh produce (fruits and vegetables) procurement as follows: Outdoor crops grown or produced during the natural growing/production period for the country or region where it is produced. Crop protection methods that do not use heat generated from fossil fuel. Minimise transport and do not use air freight. Minimal use of chilled or frozen storage.

So in the interests of sustainability, eating seasonally really only counts for when you are eating local, fresh, region appropriate, low-energy-consumption produce. However, when we are balancing our environmental footprint with nutrition and healthy lifestyles, it can be a heavy expectation to expect individuals to navigate through the detail of each and every item entering the kitchen. On this complexity, Peter Singer and Jim Mason in their book The Ethics of What We Eat conclude that without the specifics of production available for every item, you are more likely to reduce your environmental impact if you follow the ‘rules of thumb’ nicely summarised by Brooks et al..

Local, seasonal garlic

Local, seasonal garlic

Now, onto the difficulty. How do you begin to know what is seasonal, especially when apples are on the supermarket shelves all year? Glenn and I have the easy option – someone else sorts this out for us. Every week we receive a box of local, seasonal, organic or organic-in-transition, small-scale produced fresh fruit and veg from local community supported agriculture (CSA) type mob, Food Connect. We are able to read about the farmers and the farming practices of every item we receive, and while we have less control over the items in our fridge and pantry, we have adapted to eating seasonally, and have also been able to try many new varieties of fruit and veg – which is really special.

Supermarkets aim for comfort and consistency. You wouldn’t know that apples are seasonal (with different varieties at peak availability at different times of the year). Fruit and vegetables go through all sorts of energy-intensive and unappealing processing in order to maintain a constant supply on the shelves in the supermarkets. For example, fruits picked unripe are regularly treated with ethylene gas – a synthesised version (posing no health risk) of a naturally occurring volatile produced by fruits which enhances the rate of ripening – to make sure they are on the shelves at the “right time”. Supermarkets have no obligation to disclose when fresh produce was harvested, and it is in their interests to do the opposite. Don’t the vegies displayed in baskets look rustic and inviting?  It’s a highly managed system, and as such is energy intensive and out-of-sync with the natural systems and cycles on which our species (and all the others, mind you) relies.

Not everyone has the option of subscribing to a CSA or similar program, so here are some ideas for moving toward seasonal eating:

  • Avoid packing on foods. Drawing from Michael Pollan’s reflections on our relationship with food, avoiding packaged foods is already a step in the right direction. While this doesn’t guarantee you are eating seasonally, it certainly raises your chances – and helps with reducing plastic waste.
  • Pick up some information on gardening in your local region. You’ll see when are the peak times for planting particular edible crops, and when are the times for harvesting. This will at least correlate with when you can expect fresh produce to be in season.
  • Visit genuine farmers’ markets. It’s a real ‘thing’ now, to have markets, but often they may be little more than a fruit and veg store set up in a tent. Search out markets where you are buying direct from the farm, not from a merchant who likely purchased their produce from the same suppliers as the big supermarkets.
  • Search for information and guides for seasonal eating, such as the Seasonal Food Guide and this resource from My Green Australia.
  • Grow some of your own food, if you can. If you have a beautiful, ornamental garden, consider altering it to be a beautiful, edible garden. You can really avoid packaging and eat within the seasons when you are planting the seeds and harvesting the produce yourself.
  • Embrace the excitement of eating seasonally. Accept when your favourite fruit isn’t available, and look forward to the first harvest when they’re back in season. Eating fresh fruit when they’re in season and at their best is much more rewarding and special than eating bland fruit throughout the year.