As consumers in an industrialised country, we are fortunate. Our supermarkets are always full of food, regardless of the season. Not only that, but we can also buy any kind of food at any time. Strawberries in January? No problem. Green beans in March? Of course. Our great-grandparents or grandparents might have dreamed of this abundance, but are we any better off for it?
No question, having the option of buying food from countries on the other side of the world is fantastic. If the harvest fails in one country, there are fallbacks. Food imports also provide the opportunity to try new and exotic fruit and veg and, let’s face it, they have brought us the joys of tea, coffee and chocolate. But whilst we wouldn’t want to go back to the middle ages, there are many good reasons why we should know when foods are in season, and give strawberries in January a miss. Why? Read on..
Produce from faraway countries is often picked long before it is ripe and ready as it would otherwise spoil on the long journey to our supermarket shelves. That means that it has not had the opportunity to form and build up all the nutrients the ripe fruit should contain. Often it is necessary to treat the produce with chemicals or gas to ensure that it stays fresh.
If you buy local, seasonal fruit and veg, the produce will have had the time to ripen fully. Local food can get to our markets and tables very quickly, so it also won’t have lost many of its nutrients by the time we eat it.
Now is the best time to start as we are currently in the season of plenty. Late summer and autumn are harvest season. There is no other time when we have such a wide selection of different local foods to choose from. If you are not sure what’s in season, you can look it up online, e.g. on the BBC Good Food website
Supermarkets want uniform produce. Small farms can’t produce enough for the demand of a national supermarket chain. However, they may just happen to grow traditional heirloom varieties of fruit and veg (or meat, as it happens) rarely seen on a supermarket shelf. Check out your local greengrocer, farmers’ market or farm shop for unusual varieties of fruit and vegetables.
You may find that you appreciate fruit and vegetables a lot more when you can’t always have them. Remember absence makes the heart grow fonder, so imagine how wonderful a fresh tomato will taste in June when the last time you saw one was last October? How good is the first clementine in November, when you’ve not eaten any since February?
Do you worry that your meal plans might become more boring? Maybe. But it’s also possible that they may become more interesting if you use more local foods. You might buy more heirloom varieties, meat from rare breeds, or even forage and discover entirely new foods. Veg box delivery companies such as Riverford Organic publish amazing recipes on-line to help you use up your seasonal produce.
Supporting local businesses
The British economy suffered this year, although farming and small shops were having a hard time already. By buying local, you can show your support. If there is a farm shop near you, shop there. Get your fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer, your fish from the fishmonger, your meat from the butcher. Ask who their suppliers are. Chances are that you can get fresher, riper and more exciting foods there than you would find in the supermarket. Even in big cities like London and Manchester you will find markets where you can buy exactly the quantity of produce that you need and it won’t be wrapped in environmentally harmful plastic, which is a welcome bonus.
Have you noticed how expensive those tasteless, hard, watery strawberries that you pick up in January are? They’re not that good, not that nutritious, but cost an arm and a leg. So much cheaper in January to buy apples or pears, because that’s when they are in season. Strawberries are really easy to grow in summer, and there is nothing more delicious than a just-picked strawberry.
Smaller carbon footprint
It seems that the healthier a food is, the further it must travel. Food transport accounts for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. The so-called “superfoods” – such as quinoa, almonds, avocados, chia seeds, goji and acai berries all travel far. It seems as if for us, nature only provided kale. But is that true? Can we not thrive and be healthy if we focus on foods that grow closer to home?
Blackcurrants are native to the UK and contain four times the amount of vitamin C as oranges (generally imported from Spain) and double the amount of blueberries (usually imported from South America). UK produced ground flaxseed is as good a source of omega-3 as chia seeds – but wins when it comes to the amounts of other nutrients it contains.
Quinoa used to be a staple food in Bolivia. Now that consumers all over the industrialised countries want it, exporting it has become more profitable than selling it locally, and locals can no longer afford it. Growing avocados requires enormous amounts of water, creating water shortages in Mexico, where they are grown. The same is true for almonds. Although the plant does grow in the Mediterranean, 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California. Growing a single almond requires between 4 and 15 litres of water, depending on whom you ask.
Should you stop eating tropical foods?
No, we’re not saying that you should never touch a pineapple again, and we support the Fairtrade initiative. However, it is crucial to raise awareness of the issues around exotic foods so that you can make an informed choice. In the case of avocados so many end up in the bin because it is notoriously difficult to find the exact right moment between rock hard and mushy. Most of the “superfoods” we buy are imported, and yet there are many, perhaps not as trendy foods that grow right here and do the same thing.
For our practical tips on how to get your hands on more local foods, read this month’s newsletter. You can still sign up, so you don’t miss it.