Draft: Package Free vs Locally Grown | How Green is your Fruit and Veg?

Package free grocery shopping is becoming easier; Morrisons were the first supermarket to introduce plastic free fruit and veg aisles, with 127 loose fruit and veg varieties to be offered over the year saving 3 tonnes of plastic every week and removing 9,000 tonnes of unnecessary or problematic plastic per year. Tesco has launched a trial to remove a selection of plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables to cut down on packaging waste and announced last year that it would ban hard-to-recycle plastic packaging by 2019 and make all packaging fully recyclable by 2025 (personally I think they need to bring forward their targets) and Lidl, in a bid to cut down on fruit and vegetable waste, now sell “Too Good to Waste” boxes with 5kg of fruit and veg at £1.50 which is plastic free and also tackles food waste.
But, package and plastic free groceries aren't the only consideration to take into account when you go shopping and ultimately we want to choose the option with the least emissions and quite frankly, it's a mine field due to the lack of information provided to us consumers about the journey form field to plate.
Our guest write this week, Claire Lewis, is in her own words 'fairly new and still improving on a low waste lifestyle and is far from perfect'. Head's up Claire, no one is perfect! For her first post, Claire considers the various options when buying food and we end up with a 'rule of thumb' approach to help us shop more sustainably.
The Sustainable Strawberry
by Claire Lewis
Randomly, I became aware of the idea of sustainable living through getting into fitness. A fitness blogger I followed started posting about plastic pollution and it sparked a curiosity. I then watched a documentary on plastic pollution in our oceans and this lead to my first promise, to eliminate plastic from my life FOREVER!
I was actually quiet angry with myself, that before now I had not given any thought to the fact that my disposable lifestyle was contributing to a bigger problem, I mean I recycled stuff, that's good right?!
So where to start, the food shop, which brings in about 90% of all my household waste. Rallied into positive action and raring to go I confidently strode into my nearest supermarket, complete with reusable bamboo carrier bags; I mean I know what plastic looks like, so I just won't buy it, easy! But my over confidence took a tumble and in the most unlikely of places- down the soft fruit isle; where I encountered an overwhelming number of options for strawberries. Now usually I would grab the most perfect looking berries and move on, but with my new plastic free promise I ground to a halt, I had to make a decision. Added to this I have just started to wean my six month old daughter and strawberries are her absolute favourite, the thought of her looking at me with those big blue eyes if I came home without the goods did not bear thinking about. So I put on my big girl pants, took a deep breath and faced my foe.
The decision couldn’t possibility be that hard.....could it....., I just buy loose organic ones and walk away, smug and plastic free. But the loose ones are not organic and they come from Spain, the packaged ones are British – but have more plastic than a tightly wrapped suitcase at Heathrow and right now they are not in season here so would be artificially grown. Oh but there are reduced ones, so lets save some pennies and single handedly combat food waste – a massive carbon contributor.....and then there are organic, but they are how much?!
With what I thought was the best decision (and a small game of ibb, dibb) I grabbed the bright red berries and came home with another promise- that while my little girl happily made jam out of her favourite food, I would research what it is to be truly sustainable, to try and make future soft fruit purchases not so taxing on the environment. So following on from my now feverish Strawberry investigation I apply the following rule of thumb to my shopping.....
What to consider:
  • Is it in season? - Seasonal produce has many benefits outside of the obvious nutritional ones. Produce that grows in season require less intervention from farming machinery and pesticides. The resources that go into growing our produce is well worth considering too. Growing out of season means produce can undergo much more manufacturing as well as using more water, pesticides, farm machinery, packing and artificial heat for force growth. An average of 2/3 kg of carbon emissions can be released into the atmosphere for every 1kg of crops produced in a hot house.
  • Is it locally grown? - The closer the product is to your doorstep the lower the carbon emissions will be right? You would think reducing those all important food miles, by not having to transport produce by air (very bad) or sea (not so bad) would top trump strawberries grown in Spain. Well...that's not always the case which I was shocked to discover and it all comes down to whether the product was in season and if it was grown with artificial heat.
In 2003, It was reported that tomatoes from Spain had 3-5 times the emission footprint the tomatoes grown locally (without artificial heating). Although interesting, if grown locally in heated practices, then the Spanish tomatoes came out on top.
A Defra Report in 2005 concluded that "a single indicator based on total food kilometres is an inadequate indicator of sustainability". If the growing conditions were identical in both of the locations being compared then, yes, distance would be an important consideration, but the closer food is grown to our homes here in the UK the more we are forced to rely on fossil fuels to artificially provide the heat and light that the sun can't offer us at our latitude.
From Guy Watson at Riverford "At Riverford we have done a lot of work to research the environmental impact of sourcing vegetables. We have not studied strawberries but, working with the University of Exeter, we looked at other greenhouse crops. For tomatoes, grown out of season using heated glass in the UK, emissions of CO2 are about 2.5kg per kg of fruit, compared to about 0.24kg for trucking them from Spain where heat is not needed: making the local tomatoes ten times worse in terms of CO2 alone. For peppers it was even worse (4.5 kg CO2 / kg fruit) suggesting a factor of twenty in favour of importing.
The use of combined heat and power (waste heat from electricity generation used to heat the glass) which is widely used by larger and more modern producers in the UK is another complication swinging the balance some way back towards UK production. Arguably, one should also look at other environmental factors such as water use (desalination is used extensively in southern Spain). It also assumed that transport is by road and ferry; if airfreight is used emissions go up by a factor of about ten.
Extrapolating from this work, I would be fairly confident that if heat is used to extend the season of UK strawberries (earlier than, say, late April) it would be better to eat fruit imported by truck from southern Europe. Better still, wait for the UK outdoor season (June and July) and enjoy them at their best and cheapest with a clear conscience.
Without additional labelling, how as consumers can we make an informed choice?
  • Is it morally grown - Who grows your food? Be sure you know where your food comes from, supporting local farmers, supports the local and national economy and go’s towards making sure people get paid fairly for their work and their produce. Veg box schemes such as Riverfords have farms around the UK. It is also worth looking for local farm co-operatives who offer veg boxes - you'll need to do some searching and it's worth checking out a local food and product event near you where they will often advertise.
  • Is it organic - Organic food works with natures natural rhythms, reducing soil and water pollution, encouraging local wildlife and biodiversity and organically grown also ticks the boxes for everything else on the list, seasonal, locally grown and more such as soil health, water conservation, combatting erosion and so on ta da!
"If only 10,000 medium sized farms in the U.S. converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles.
The Organic Trade Association also notes that if every farmer in the U.S. converted to organic production, we could eliminate 500 million pounds of persistent and harmful pesticides from entering the environment annually.
  • Can I buy it loose (or PYO)? - By the time the food hits our shelves in all it's shrink wrap glory the damage is already done, but buying without packaging goes some way to put pressure on suppliers to do more and be more thoughtful about packing, albeit in large supermarkets and even at a local deli, in order to transport food packaging will have been involved so the closer the farm to the shop = less packaging throughout the life of the produce, which is a particular selling point of veg box schemes on farms.
  • Do I really need it? - If not just don't buy it! Food waste has an enormous carbon footprint, so getting creative with those scraps can be of enormous benefit to your bank balance and the environment.
  • Grow your Own - Can you grow your own. Even if it's just some salad leaves on your window cill, you'll be ticking so many of the points above.
Now personally I do not believe in perfect and of course there will be times, where, try as you might it is just not possible, but if everyone is mindful to make the best choice possible then these collaborative small step can make giant strides in the right direction.
Thank you Claire. I think it's safe to say there were some surprising statistics and it's a great check list to work through however there really does need to be more information available to consumers to make an informed choice as otherwise it feels like we are just guessing or going with out gut.
There is a current petition (with only 86 signatures at the time of writing) requesting all products are sold with emission labelling. For one, I think supermarkets should be the priority whereas this petition calls for every product but nonetheless, it would be a massive change in the right direct and you can sign it here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/259468
Did you know, Oatly now include carbon emission labelling on their products so it can be done!
Tash x


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