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Those Local Vegetables Aren’t Always Better for the Planet

Preaching seasonality and buying local separately helps no-one

Food’s carbon footprint depends on local and seasonal produce working in tandem Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Buying British tomatoes in autumn? Think again

Food miles have been the consumer-facing watchword for measuring the environmental impact of food for a long time, and for good reason. The term pairs two things that are easy enough to comprehend and introduces an apparently measurable, countable metric that can be compared and contrasted, cutting through the nebulous layers of supply chains and transparency that are in reality incredibly complex to navigate.

It’s little surprise then that this apparently measurable, countable metric that cuts through nebulous layers of supply chains and transparency that are in reality incredibly complex to navigate isn’t really fit for purpose whatsoever. Its adoption, coupled with the increasingly moralising discourses around seasonality and locavore cuisine that are rooted in environmental stewardship but often unhelpfully distilled into maxims at large, has left a mainstream knowledge vacuum around food’s impact on the planet, mostly in divorcing local — place — from seasonal — time. According to research led by climate professor Tim Reay at the University of Edinburgh, The life cycle of food production and transportation, coupled with demand for out-of-season produce, means that growing lettuces 30 miles from London’s markets in a polytunnel in fact contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than flying them in from Europe; oranges shipped from Brazil, or the Mediterranean, have low carbon footprints because the intensity of production required to “beat” natural climactic conditions isn’t there. Food systems can’t be boiled down to farmers market dictums, as good as so many farmers are; thankfully, there is no seismic political event on the horizon that would likely require Britain to ramp up internal food production out of step with seasonality in the face of food shortages and increased tariffs. [Independent]

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