How far does your produce travel to reach the kitchen? It is a trip to the grocery store? A visit to the weekly farmer’s market? Or is it as little as a few steps to the backyard?
Something that many American’s fail to acknowledge is the amount of fossil-fueled miles that our food travels to reach the ultra-convenient supermarket. Ever wonder how you get strawberries in December or watermelon in February? These summer fruits are very difficult to cultivate and harvest off season but when they are, it’s usually in another part of the continent or world.
Given American’s supermarket culture, our demand usually isn’t influenced by the produce available by the land at that time and place—yet we still indulge in this craving for spring berries and summer melons in the middle of winter. Shrinking the radius that your food travels is tricky because it can mean giving up foods that you might eat everyday and it gets even more difficult when you break down the miles your processed, multi-ingredient foods.
Let’s look at avocados: a fruit that has gained appreciation and popularity across the board, especially over the last 10 years. Most avocados are produced in the Meixcan state of Michoacán. Michoacán boasts a tropical climate which makes avocado production ideal and plentiful. The distance from Michoacán to San Jose, California is 2,194 miles. 2,194 miles that would most likely be travelled by an 18-wheeler that gets an average of 6 miles per gallon of diesel gasoline. That trip alone emits over 7.2 tons of CO2. Carbon dioxide is a gas, so how do we even begin to conceptualize what that looks like? A blog featured on the Environmental Defense Fund by Bill Chameides helps us out: “Picture a football field, and then imagine a round balloon with one end lined up on the goal line and the other on the 10 yards line – that is, a balloon with a diameter of 10 yards. If that balloon was filled with CO2, it would weigh about 1 ton; it would be a 1-ton CO2 balloon” (Chameides, EDF). So imagine over 6 football field sized balloons; this example is barely a fraction of the produce transportation that happens around the world on a daily basis.
The effect distance has on greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow but miles and miles of transit isn’t only impacting global temperatures, but the nutrition of the produce. Fresh produce begins to lose its nutritional value the moment it is picked, so when fruits and veggies are travelling for hours or days, the value drops dramatically.
Other components such as air exposure, artificial lighting, and inconsistent temperature will also cause the produce’s coveted vitamins such as A, B, C, and E vitamins to quickly wane off (Down to Earth.) In a University of California study, it was found that fresh vegetables lose between 15 to 55% of their vitamin C content in the kitchen (UC Davis). Vitamin C is crucial to human health and immunity yet we let it be taken away from us when we let it travel for miles wrapped in plastic or trapped in cans.
A huge factor that affects the nutrition of our produce is soil quality. Soil is a living, breathing ecosystem of its own: hosting bacteria, fungi, algae, and other microorganisms that help break down organic matter to enrich and improve its content.
Since the third and latest Agricultural Revolution, the emphasis on soil health has dwindled off due to the incorporation of synthetic fertilizers. The shift was followed by an increase of tilling: a process that prepares soil for cultivation by mixing, digging, and turning soil, usually done by machines to make planting seeds easier. During this process, the loose topsoil is exposed to the elements and completely destroys the rich ecosystem that has been created—leaving it in the fate of synthetic fertilizers and additives. Additionally, certain greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are released into the air or carried away in a dissolved form by the rain as toxic runoff.