Factors Considered when Buying Fruit and Vegetables
The basic rules of thumb for choosing low-carbon, eco-friendly fresh produce are as follows: favor local, non-exotic seasonal produce; avoid air-freighted foods but don't worry so much about fruit and vegetables transported by ship; and favor organic when possible.
Very often, following this advice equates to favoring inexpensive produce. Vegetables transported by plane, or grown in heated greenhouses, will typically be more costly to produce than those items produced without large volumes of fossil fuels. (The exception is the organic component; organic produce is always a bit more expensive.)
What's in season when?
Choosing local, seasonal produce is good for two reasons. It reduces the need for long-distance transport and - assuming you stick to traditional varieties suited to your local climate - it ensures that there will be no need for energy-hungry heated greenhouses. Local, seasonal foods tend to score highly for nutritional value, too.
Even for imported foods it makes sense to consider the seasons. For example, oranges are most widely available in Europe during the winter months. And though some tropical fruits - such as bananas - are available all year round, it arguably makes environmental sense to buy more of them at times when little local fruit is in season.
If you find seasonal food somewhat uninspiring, a cookbook arranged by the seasonality of the main ingredients - such as River Cafe Green - might help. And if you'd rather not have to think about what's in season when you go shopping, consider signing up for an organic box scheme or visit your local farmers' market. Either way, you'll usually be offered mostly seasonal foods.
With thousands of farm workers killed every year by poisoning, and wildlife and the environment suffering in numerous ways, pesticides unequivocally pose certain threats to people and planet. Indeed, the impact of pesticides on farm workers in the developing world is one good reason to favor organic when purchasing imported fruit and vegetables.
But what about the impact of pesticide residues on the consumer? Green campaigners link these residues to skin and eye irritation, mental and nervous problems, breast cancer and other conditions, and point out that little is known about the long-term effects of many of these substances (some of which are hormone disrupters), especially their combined "cocktail effect".
Most toxicologists seem less convinced that the quantities in question are big enough to be a worry. For example, a major government study published in 1998 tested more than two thousand fruit and vegetable samples and found that around 73% were residue-free, 26% had residues below the MRL ("maximum recommended limit") and 1.3% contained residues above the limit. Some green campaigners were up in arms about the 1.3%, yet the reports authors concluded that - even in the case of those foods that slightly exceeded the limits - "food is safe from the point of view of pesticide residues".
Whether a government report on such a topic should be trusted is an open question, but as a general rule this is one area where there seems to be a divide between greens, on the one hand, and the majority of scientists on the other. Regardless of who is right, consumers concerned about pesticide residues - especially those who don't feel that they can justify the expense of buying organic for all their fresh produce - may be interested to know which fruit and vegetables typically contain the highest and lowest levels of residues. The box below shows the results of a pesticide residue study carried out by the US s Environmental Working
Group (EWG). Note that the figure for each fruit or vegetable - measured relatively, out of one hundred - describes the residue levels on food as typically prepared, not the amount used in growing. So banana, for example, because of its thick, inedible skin, comes on the bottom half of the list despite being associated with intensive pesticide use. In other words, these figures relate to potential health risks to consumers - not to the total impact on the environment or farmers' health.
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