Two-thirds of water use, 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the leading cause of deforestation; this is how food production affects the environment, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There is no doubt that mass food production has a harmful effect on our planet. But there’s good news as well: it turns out that we can make a difference by eating locally and seasonally.
The process of transporting food all around the world has a much higher environmental impact than transporting it locally. By eating foods that are in season locally and produced locally, we can reduce the environmental burden created by the demand for locally out-of-season foods, which have to be imported from parts of the globe where they are in season.
We can start by adopting a diet that emphasizes vegetables, homemade dishes using locally produced ingredients, and limited consumption of meat and processed foods high in fat, sugar, or salt. However, food production doesn’t only affect the environment; it also impacts our overall wellness, including our economic and social health. Think about this: buying to large commercial farmers means investing in technically sophisticated farming operations, which often have farmworkers living in substandard housing with relatively little control over their work schedule or labor practices. This can, for example, disrupt the family structure and the education of the children in those families. You can imagine how else it can affect the community and local economy. What if instead, we invest in the local farmers?
According to the World Health Organization, food safety requires attention during the whole process: harvest, transport, processing, storage, and later, preparation or storage by consumers. Pesticides, growth hormones, and veterinary drugs are designed to expand the quantity and quality of food so they can endure the transportation process; however, these additives can be harmful for our health. In addition, transportation and storage processes can accelerate the loss of nutrients of the products, as well as introduce toxins in the food depending on the storage conditions. When eating locally, there is a better chance that the products we consume have not been genetically modified, or treated with hormones and agrochemicals that are harmful to our health. Studies show that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are associated with hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters.
At the same time, we are benefiting from more nutrients and better flavor, and supporting our local economy. We are also better able to establish the origin and, by extension, the quality of the products, as certain produce items, such as meat, do not have the same production standards all over the world. When buying local rather than imported produce, we have more access to the standards and processes that were used to produce it, giving us a better awareness of the food’s quality and impact on our health.
Better taste and fresh products
When consuming local products, most fruits and vegetables are picked when they are ripe and can be sold less than 24 hours after harvest. Fruits and vegetables are fresher and tastier when bought locally and seasonally. On the contrary, when they need to be shipped far away, they are picked before being fully ripe so they can endure the journey and can lose nutrients, freshness, and taste as a result. One 2010 study concluded that local foods are perceived to be safer than conventional foods because of a greater sense of accountability when buying from local farmers than when purchasing products shipped from overseas.
Personal enjoyment and higher involvement
Research shows that cooking with fresh and local products can help us feel more motivated in the kitchen. Those items produced and sold locally can create a higher level of engagement and enjoyment than those that have been imported or highly processed. The study mentioned above also found that when we consume local foods, our involvement in food preparation is higher, allowing us to be inspired by all the different local ingredients available in our kitchen. Cooking mindfully, being present during the whole process, has numerous benefits for our health; resulting in a more joyful activity that allows us to enjoy the meals that we passionately prepared.
Support the local community
By consuming local products, we support and empower our local community. We may even personally know the farmer or the owner of the market, and we can easily become informed about how the products are treated and delivered. The money we spend on buying local products stays within the area and can generate new economic opportunities.
Incorporating different foods into your diet
The majority of foods are seasonal and are only available during certain periods of the year. Therefore, if we do not adjust the dishes we cook to the available foods, we often need to buy out-of-season ingredients that are not as healthy (or as delicious) while being more expensive. Adjusting to the season can give us the opportunity to try new products that we do not usually consume and learn how to cook different meals. By following the seasons, we contribute to local food production and eat a greater variety of products that provide different essential nutrients for our body. When consuming seasonal foods, we make sure that we incorporate a greater variety of foods into our diet. Fruits and vegetables contain varying amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other important nutrients; therefore, by increasing the variety of foods we consume, we also make sure that we get enough nutrients for our bodies.
What can you do to eat local and seasonal products?
- Ask for local products and get informed about the production processes in your area. If you can’t find someone to ask (or if you’d rather not go to the trouble), you can always read the label.
- Search for seasonal products so you can plan your meals before you make your shopping list.
- If you live in the northern hemisphere, you can try the BBC’s seasonality table to identify the general seasonality of fruits, vegetables, meat and game, as well as fish and seafood. For the southern hemisphere, you can use this Australian seasonal food guide.
To sum up, if you get to know the products you can buy locally and seasonally, you can plan your meals in advance and start enjoying the fresh and tasty foods of your area, all while supporting your local economy as well as your health.