What's your foodprint? A guide to sustainable eating

Tomatoes in grocery store. Photo: GoToVan/flickr

I learned a lot of lessons growing up in southern Saskatchewan -- and most were related to using resources respectfully, eating healthy, and producing and buying food responsibly. I didn't realize it at the time (and the debates about climate change and carbon emissions were a few decades off for sure when I was a kid) but I was learning to live sustainably, before the word became trendy.

I can still remember the long rows of potatoes we dreaded planting each spring, weeding throughout the hot Prairie summer, and harvesting in the sometimes really cold days of early fall. And I still remember my dad dropping off a few extra bags to appreciative families who didn't have a garden and were a bit down on their luck.

While my mother never canned fruits or vegetables, I remember some of my aunts canning as much fresh produce as they possibly could, given the room they had on the shelf.

What we eat definitely has climate impact but there is often more than meets the eye when you start calculating how to eat sustainably.

Eating foods when they are in season where you live

These days a lot of research has gone into trying to determine the food miles used in transporting produce around the world. More than a decade ago, the 100-mile diet became popular. There is no doubt that moving food across the globe on planes or trucks creates CO2 emissions. Bringing in pineapples from Costa Rica or pomegranates from California or Spain can't be good for the planet.

Should we buy them at all -- no matter the season -- since they are not grown locally? Probably not if we consider the CO2 emissions created to transport them, no matter the time of year. But transportation fumes are not the only factor.

Take the common tomato, eaten almost daily in Canada, throughout the year.

The tomato is a good example of how it is not always easy to calculate food miles. For example, we have grown accustomed to having fresh tomatoes all year round, even if they cannot be produced locally. Meanwhile, some tomatoes are produced locally, in greenhouses. But tomatoes are also often shipped in from the south. If you have a choice of buying a locally grown greenhouse tomato in winter or of buying one shipped in from Mexico or the southern U.S., which is the most sustainable?

In reality, it may be more sustainable to ship a tomato in from the south than produce locally grown tomatoes by heating greenhouses in the middle of a Canadian winter. But how do you know? Maybe the local Canadian greenhouse is fuelled by waste heat, renewable energy and an efficient hydroponic system! A dilemma? Perhaps -- but then harken back to what my mom did -- she encouraged us to know when foods were in season and to select those, usually because of price. But it also makes sense in terms of taste and carbon emissions. She also encouraged us to grow our own -- and to prepare foods for the winter.

I ate a lot of stewed tomatoes in the winter when I was a kid. And my mom loved the simplicity of freezer jams and flash freezing vegetables and sometimes fruit. These days, there is also the option of using dehydrators to prep fruits, vegetables and even meats, if you like.

Assuming that all imported produce has a larger carbon footprint than foods produced locally is not always right either. Again, it really depends on how the food is produced, what inputs or amendments have been used, and how much energy is used in the production as well as the processing. For example, in certain parts of the world, farmers use far less chemical or mechanical inputs than northern farmers do. In some cases that might actually mean that the carbon footprint is lower for products that are flown in, compared to those grown locally. And you may be helping a farmer halfway around the world to a living, depending on how the food is traded. Another dilemma? Definitely.

Calculating your foodprint

You can try counting food miles or try estimating fly-in miles, but there may be an easier way to calculate your footprint and impact.

Here the questions I ask myself as I try to eat sustainably:

1. Is it locally produced?

2. Is it organic?

3. If not local, then is it a fair trade product?

4. Am I helping a family farmer when I purchase this product?

5. Is it in season where I live?

6. What can I do to contribute to making my food menu more sustainable? Drying, canning, freezing locally grown foods? Participating in a community garden? Growing some foods in my own backyard?

Chances are, if we are eating responsibly and selecting foods that are in season, locally produced (maybe even out of our own garden) and organic, our efforts can go a long way toward reducing our food carbon footprint -- our foodprint. Eating this way will also help to ensure that the food we do consume is more nutritious, tastes better, and actually lasts longer since three-fourths of its shelf life after harvest has not been spent in transport by plane, ship or truck.

If you're concerned about costs, pull out those easy-to-use preserving recipes when fruits and vegetables are in season, check what can be flash frozen easily, and maybe even grow your own.

And if you have extra in your food basket, share with neighbours or the food bank.

Eating is a complicated business. So is trying to support family farmers. And so is trying to mitigate climate changes. And diet debates can be endless: vegetarian, vegan, sustainably sourced, pasture-fed, etc. But the truly important point is that we are asking ourselves some hard questions -- constantly! If we keep questioning, we are bound to get the right answers at least some of the time.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: GoToVan/flickr

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