Eat in season to save the planet and reap some tasty rewards

Now be honest…How many times this summer have you looked outside at the utterly disappointing UK weather and complained about it? Is it in the double digits? Or the triple?? It is very telling that the topic I discuss most often these days with friends, family and random strangers while queuing is whether we are having a typical British summer or if this is ‘something else’. With the cold temperatures, fluctuating winds and unexpected outbursts of rain that make the weather forecasts about as reliable as a horoscope, the results of my straw poll weigh heavily in favour of the ‘something else’.  

But many of us in the UK are relatively lucky to only be whinging about the lack of BBQ opportunities and getting rained on again during a run. It may have been easier in the past to ignore the ‘something else’ weather when it seemed to be happening somewhere else. But seriously, when the weather is producing catastrophic demonstrations of severe floods and wildfires in such sheer frequency in places that are increasingly more familiar, it is impossible to ignore the absolutely devastating effects that the climate crisis is having on communities. I have to hope that there aren’t many people left on this planet who still doubt that a fundamentally radical change to how the world is tackling the climate crisis is now essential. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees on the solution…Especially when it comes to food and diet.

To be fair, most people now accept that what we eat makes an impact on environment, even if they still maintain that it’s a pretty insignificant one compared to the other causes of the climate crisis. However, not everyone recognises the massive effect that the world’s food production, food security and our diets have on the planet. In spite of this, the evidence to show that all three are intricately tied up in some of the causes of the climate crisis is undisputable. Which means that a shift towards using more sustainable methods of producing and growing our food, developing better means of ensuring food security for all and encouraging diets that make a smaller impact on the natural resources of our planet must be part of the solution. However, this simplistic description of some of the essential objectives to address the climate crisis is not an ‘oven-ready’ plan that can easily be implemented worldwide.  

For the average person it can feel like the climate crisis problem is completely out of your hands when trying to get your head around the size of the problem is complicated enough. How are you supposed to know what you should be doing about it? Even if you care about your diet’s environmental impact, how can you be expected to do anything other than buying and eating the food that is available and affordable where you live? How can you possibly make any significant difference to the climate crisis when you are only one tiny person?

Even for those who are adamant that they should do their bit to address the climate crisis, it is still very confusing. The amount of information available out there about how to live the best environmentally friendly life and eat the most sustainable diet for the planet is endless. But this only makes it more difficult to navigate. Especially when so many people purporting to be health gurus including celebrities have dipped their oars into what may be a new lucrative area to them. How can you ensure that your diet has a smaller impact on the environment? Should you become a Pescatarian, a Vegetarian or a Vegan? Or is it enough to just simply stop eating red meat? Should you ditch your favourite cow’s milk latte and switch to soya or almond milk, instead? Although…isn’t almond milk also bad for the environment? Where do all of those almonds and soya even come from??

As a Nutritionist, I like to keep it simple. So I will neither be adding my two pence to the Instagramable mantras nor getting really deep into the political and social ramifications of addressing the environmental impact of our food. The reality is that most people struggle enough dealing with the stresses of their everyday lives and just getting food on the table. So rather than share a wholly impractical diet that is equally sustainable and impossible to follow I’d rather focus on one little aspect related to reducing the environmental impact of our diets that is a much easier concept to follow. It is the smaller aim of considering seasonality when you shop for your 5+ a day. Because simply increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables that are in season where you live will help to reduce the environmental impact of your food.

Now you are probably thinking that focusing on the seasonality of fruit and veg is a little bit old school and somewhat irrelevant. It’s not even something that is ever highlighted by the media. When the supermarket shelves are packed to the brim with the same fruit and veg all year long, why does seasonality matter? But eating more fruit and veg that is in season is not only good for the environment but there are advantages for your health and your wallet, too.  

First of all, eating fruits and vegetables that are in season in the UK (or wherever you live) will have a smaller environmental impact than that made by eating others because of the simple fact that they are locally grown. In other words, as they don’t have to be shipped in, it takes less resources to get the food from ‘farm to fork’. Even though, I must mention a caveat here because there are always exceptions to the rule. And some of them are downright glaring. You may have noticed in your supermarket that some locally grown foods, such as tomatoes, are somehow always available throughout the year. But that doesn’t mean that they always in season in the UK. Many tomatoes are grown outside their true growing season in massive greenhouses which can actually leave a greater carbon footprint than that made by importing others from nearby countries. Confused?

Just remember that those locally grown massive greenhouse tomatoes are not the same ones for sale in your local farmer’s market or smaller fruit and veg stalls which should only be available when they are in season. Choosing these will have a smaller environmental impact, as will opting for all locally grown produce that is available in season. In other words, despite the exceptions out there, it still makes sense for the environment to shop for fruit and veg in season and that’s usually gained by looking for local sources and producers.

The second advantage of eating more fruit and veg in season is that because it’s locally grown, it can be picked at a much later date than those sowed further afield which have to be imported before they ripen. Which means that you can get locally grown fruit and veg when they are at their absolute best. Not only will they be at their peak ripeness but they will also have a slightly higher nutritional value. Although to be clear, this is not to say that eating underripe fruit and veg is less healthy for you. Increasing your consumption of all fruit and veg, underripe or not, is great for your health. But clearly if you are eating fruit and veg that’s in season, they will also be at their tastiest and that alone will encourage anyone to eat a little bit more.

The third advantage of eating fruit and veg that is in season is that it can also be very healthy for your wallet. Local produce is almost always cheaper and more available than those grown and flown in from further afar. The price difference also makes it easier to help you identify what’s in season when you are out shopping. But besides the cost, how else can you tell if the fruit and veg on the supermarket shelves is really in season? Here are some top tips to help you on the way.    

Check the basics
The most obvious place to start when you are checking for seasonality is simply by checking the label of where your fruit and veg is from. The simple rule is that if it is grown locally then it should be in season, bearing in mind the greenhouse caveat. You may have noticed that some supermarkets also give out information about the number of air miles particular foods have racked up before they get to their shelves. However, don’t be distracted by this as it is somewhat misleading and doesn’t necessarily relate to a product’s overall carbon footprint (as evidenced, above). But this brings me nicely to my second tip…

Support your local farmer’s markets and smaller stalls
The fruit and veg for sale at your local farmer’s markets and smaller shop stalls are more likely to be grown locally and to be in season. So shopping from these can be an easy way to ensure that you are getting seasonal produce. However, this may not persuade everyone to make the effort of an extra shopping trip. Doing a weekly shop at a large supermarket where you can buy everything from food and clothes to prescriptions while being able to treat yourself to a large cappuccino as you fill your trolley can be a difficult habit to break. It will be even harder to convince those with less time to browse the aisles to start shopping locally. Because how can they justify spending any more than the 5 minutes time it takes them to click and reorder the same online shopping list each week?  

However, even just making a monthly visit to a smaller retailer or a farmer’s market will still help to reduce the environmental imprint of your diet. Not to mention, supporting some smaller retailers and growers can only be a good thing. But if you really cannot even fit in a monthly shop, there are now some great alternatives. Chief among them are the many fruit and veg box schemes available online which allow you to order of a weekly box of produce from local growers. You may not always know exactly what you will be getting inside your box each week but that can also be part of the fun!

Don’t make it difficult
There are plenty of seasonal calendars and apps for fruit and veg out there to tell you exactly what’s in season where you live. Which means that you won’t have to spend any time trying to it work out. However, this is not to say that if you simply follow one of them then you can make a complete switch to only buying fruit and veg that is in season. The reality is that the limited seasons of fruit and veg grown in the UK means that we also need to import from more temperate climates, especially in the winter months. In fact, according to UK government food supply figures, we imported a whopping 84% of our total fruit and 44% of our total vegetables in 2020.

In other words, even for the eco-warriors among us, if you had to rely entirely on fruit and veg produced in the UK, you would face some pretty lean months. Thanks to the UK climate, the only local fruit that is in season and available between March and April is rhubarb. Only the most organised people and ones who must have more time on their hands than you and me would be fine with this scenario. They would’ve planned ahead after consulting their trusty farmer’s almanac and likely canned, frozen and pickled a whole pantry full of apples, pears and berries among other things that had grown all those months earlier. But the rest of us are more likely to still be wondering what a pantry is…

So although it would be ideal to be able to use these calendars and apps to rely solely on local fruit and veg grown in season, there’s no point in being a seasonal martyr and going without. Remember that the intention is to try to eat more fruit and veg in season where you can. Do buy local seasonal produce when it’s available but don’t be hard on yourself for buying others when there is no other choice. Ultimately, increasing your fruit and veg consumption is great for your health no matter the season. And if like me, you are a runner, don’t beat yourself up for having a slight dependency on (imported) bananas. Yes, there is no denying that you will be creating a carbon footprint but the health benefits of eating the bananas are immense (and also tasty). So eat them but at the same time why not also try to offset it ever slightly by making an even greater effort to buy more local fruits and veg in season?  

Hopefully these top tips for shopping seasonally will not only help you to reduce the environmental impact of your diet but they will also inspire you to try some different kinds of locally grown fruit and veg. Because I have to admit that I think that one of the best things about trying to shop for more local produce in season is enjoying the variety on offer. Over time you will find that you even become more accustomed to when the seasons begin for your particular favourites. At the moment I am getting through some local cherries, berries, purple sprouting broccoli and sweetcorn while keeping a beady eye on the blackberry bushes in my neighbourhood that are due to ripen any minute now…

But while I wait, ready to pounce on the local blackberries I am also enjoying experimenting with some recipes for sweetcorn. Try these Spicy corn ‘ribs’ with a squeeze of lime. They make a great addition to a BBQ even if the weather moves it back indoors again.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.