How green is your plate?

Jeanne Horak-Druiff navigates her way through the tricky terrain of carbon footprints and food miles.

by: Jeanne Horak-Druiff | 11 Mar 2009

If you go and do your average weekly grocery shop in the UK, studies have shown that it is entirely possible that you will come home with Moroccan oranges, South African apples, Chilean grapes, a Greek butternut and Kenyan green beans. In fact, half the vegetables and 95% of the fruit consumed in the UK is imported.

How far did your fruit travel
Although the idea of eating imported and out-of-season produce may sound glamorous and exclusive, there are many reasons not to do it. For a start, if your fruit has been shipped around the globe, it will have had to be picked very early, meaning that it has not been allowed to ripen and fully develop its flavours – think anaemic, half-green tomatoes or rock-hard plums. But more importantly, eating food that has travelled too far has a major environmental impact on our planet.

The concept of "food miles", or the distance that the food travels from the field to your fork, was developed in the 1990s as an attempt to quantify the impact that your food’s path to your plate has on the environment.

As South Africa is blessed with an agriculture-friendly climate, the picture here is obviously a little different as we tend not to import the majority of our produce. But we are still far from innocent when it comes to examining the green credentials of what we eat.

Food miles
In fact, measuring only food miles is increasingly being dismissed as being too simplistic a way of looking at the problem and there is a growing feeling that we need to look at the bigger picture. For example, I have friends in London who will absolutely refuse to buy Kenyan green beans or Cape grapes – yet these are the self-same people who enthusiastically support foreign aid for struggling developing countries.

Surely supporting a country's economy by buying its produce is a far more efficient form of support, rather than charity handouts?

And do you think is it more ethical to buy organic Fairtrade fruit with minimal packaging that was imported by air, or non-organic heavily packaged fruit that has been driven around from farm to packaging plant to shops in huge refrigerated trucks? Tricky, isn't it?

The way of the future seems to be to look at food’s life cycle carbon footprint, meaning that you look at all the carbon dioxide emissions produced in the growing, processing and distribution of a particular foodstuff. Organic farming, for instance, uses less energy and emits less carbon dioxide than traditional farming. Although you are buying Cape grapes in a Cape Town supermarket, you have to take into account that they were trucked from the farm to a central packaging plant and then back to Cape Town. And the next time you are offered your locally grown fruit in "protective" polystyrene packaging, ask yourself about the resources used in manufacturing it.

The Carbon Trust is an international body that is working with various companies to develop a standardised carbon footprint labelling system to ensure that consumers can make an informed choice. Until then, if you are feeling dazed and confused, here are my five top tips for reducing your food's carbon footprint without resorting to home-grown lentil stews every night.

Five tips to reduce your carbon footprint

Buy only food that’s in season
Even locally grown, organic fruit and vegetables bought out of season will have been refrigerated for weeks in storage, which uses energy and creates a carbon footprint.

Eat less red meat
Red meat is the most energy-intensive of all foods to produce. It takes 2 400 litres of water (to grow the grain to feed the cow, and to sustain the cow) to produce a 150g hamburger patty, and livestock produce methane gas that contributes to global warming.

Buy food with minimal packaging
The manufacture of the packaging also leaves a carbon footprint, and because plastic or polystyrene packaging is non-biodegradable, recycling them will also use energy.

Find your local farmers' market and support it
That way you know that the food really hasn't travelled that far and the packaging will usually be minimal.

Buy organic where possible
Organic farming does not rely on nitrogen fertilizers which create seven tons of carbon emissions for every ton produced.

If you have any great tips, please share them with me.

Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.

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