An easy rule of thumb for reducing food miles: buy delicate food locally

by sophie on August 6, 2007 · 4 comments

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Don’t you think trying to shop ethically sometimes seems mind-bogglingly complicated? Should I buy the imported but sun-ripened tomatoes from Spain, or the ones from 50 miles away but that have been grown in a heated greenhouse. On the one hand, it is great that the modern world lets us share so much information about these pros and cons but I’m sure that it discourages nearly as many people because it all just seems too complicated and difficult.

There’s no way I can keep everyhing I have read up about in my head for long enough to take it grocery shopping so my approach has been to distill all of the good stuff into some uncomplicated rules of thumb. And here’s one I prepared earlier, ta da!

Buy delicate food locally
This stems from a very simple theory. Delicate foods like herbs, salad leaves and berries perish quickly and tend to be air freighted, whereas sturdier foods like citrus, squashes and most vegetables last long enough and are hardy enough to be shipped. In practice all it means is that everytime I pick up something delicate I look at the label to see where it was produced and if it isn’t local I don’t buy it. If you wanted to join in you would need to come up with your own definition of local, by which I mean a virutal boundary marking out an area within which perishable items can get to your shops quickly without being flown. This is easy if you live on a large island – for me that boundary is anything produced within the UK.

Obviously this is a simplistic approach and will fall down occasionally; I’m sure I do occasionally unwittingly (and wittingly) buy an air-freighted item. What matters to me is finding ways to making ethical shopping easy so that the temptation isn’t there just not to bother. Lots of people shopping ethically most of the time will have a far bigger impact on both the environment and the food industry than a select few managing to do all of their shopping ethically but via an incomprehensible rule system that most of us just don’t have the time to keep up with.

The main alternatives to air freight, shipping and road, are not saintly but are better and are the realisic options while most of still buy a lot of our food from the supermarket. Shipping contributes far more overall to CO2 emissions but this is simply because much more food is transported in this way – air freight is far more harmful on a per item basis and growing in popularity. If you like numbers, Sami Grover over at Treehugger has calculated that “shipping 1.5 tonnes of product by ship to the UK created 0.124 tonnes of CO2, while shipping only 0.5 tonnes of the same product by air created 4.5 tonnes of CO2”. It isn’t the kind of article that goes into great detail about how these numbers were reached but it is a thought provoking read as is the Soil Assocation’s consultation about how (or if) they should tackle the environmental impact of air freight within the setting of organic certification standards.

Buying everything locally would be fantastic, but to concentrate on cutting down air transportation by buying delicate produce locally is a great place to start. In certain climates this will mean that you may only be able to get these products locally at certain times of year. The rest of the year is up to you – I do my best to live without and try to make good use of my freezer but I will admit to the occasional sneaky purchase in the middle of winter when I really need a fix of fresh coriander.

This post is for lovely Meeta, who has organised an Earth mingle for everybody to share a small action that they are taking to help the earth. Meeta requested a recipe to go with the post so I have included my cucumber, chilli and mint salsa, made with lovely but delicate ingredients. It is a uncomplicated little thing but the cool cucumber and fiery chilli are good to each other and with five minutes of work you have a perfect partner for grilled fish or chicken, or another accompaniment for the barbecue. Most of the ingredients are from a farm just up the road from my house (or from my garden in the case of the mint) and arrived with the added earth benefit of no double layer plastic packaging.

Recipe for Cucumber, chilli and mint salsa

For a few people, on the side

1 small cucumber
1 medium red chilli
1 tbsp very finely chopped mint leaves
2 tsp mild olive oil
Juice from half a lime

Peel some or all of the skin from the cucumber and slice it once lengthways down the middle. Use a teaspoon to take out most of the seeds.

Press the cucumber flat side down and get your knife close to the board so that you can cut the cucumber into long thin layers from the bottom up. Once you’ve got these then you can cut each layer into little tiny piece like on the photograph.

It’s easy then – just combine with all of the other ingredients give it a good stir!

If your cucumber has a bitter note (which they sometimes they do) then stir in a tiny pinch of caster sugar. Serve cold.

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