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Are seasonal fruits and vegetables better for the environment?

Fancy strawberries in summer? Or maybe some kale in spring? We live in a time where we can get our hands on practically any produce regardless of the time of year. But should we?

 

Often, we hear about the nutritional and flavorful benefits of eating seasonally, but what about the environment? 

 

While it’s possible to shop for out-of-season fruit and vegetables at the grocery store at any time, buying in-season produce brings undeniable benefits. We know that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is part of a healthy diet. Our bodies need fiber, minerals, and vitamins to function. Naturally, plant foods do have a smaller environmental footprint. 

 

But it’s important to think about how we can all do our part for the planet. So, how does eating seasonally help the environment? We’re here to answer your questions and dive into what it really means to eat seasonally.   

 

What does “seasonal” mean?

 

Every fruit and vegetable has certain conditions in which it thrives. For instance, raspberries grow best in sunny conditions, so they are naturally the perfect summer fruit. Another example of seasonal crop production comes via oranges, which love hot summers like those found in Spain or Italy. 

 

When you eat fruit and vegetables in season, it means they were grown and harvested in the ideal conditions where the plants naturally flourish. 

 

But sometimes knowing what foods are in season can get a little confusing. The word “seasonal” is often used to describe foods harvested in the local area or it can pertain to the plant being grown and harvested in a more “traditional” fashion. While none of these things are negative, they do show how labeling seasonal food can be tricky. 

 

The most basic definition to keep in mind is that essentially, seasonality of food refers to the time when the produce is at its peak. 

 

At its core, seasonal food is fresh produce ripe for eating and grown in conditions where it naturally thrives. Want to find out what produce to buy and when? Read our guide to seasonal vegetables and fruits

 

What's the environmental impact of eating seasonal fruit and vegetables?

We don’t have to tell you that the food we eat affects our health. But what we eat also has an environmental impact. Industrial agriculture produces pollution in the air, soil, and water. Animals raised for food purposes produce a ton of waste, like methane gas. Air emissions from livestock make up 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not just animal agriculture that harms the environment; traditional crop production can affect soil health and cause soil erosion. 

 

While it’s important to think about greenhouse gasses, there’s even more going on. The environmental impact of food production seeps into the water and soil. We also have to think about fertilizers, land use, water footprint, and the effects on natural habitats and biodiversity. 

 

The impact of food on the environment is tabbed by a metric called the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This is a technique that evaluates the potential environmental effects of a product through its whole life cycle. So, from production and distribution to use and end-of-life, the entire life cycle is considered. It includes inputs like growing, harvesting, storing, and consumption. 

 

To put it into perspective, researchers have found that the global food system accounts for about 26% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But, it’s important to know that there’s a big variation between types of food. For example, animal-based foods typically have a higher footprint than plant-based foods, especially lamb and cheese. While poultry and pork usually have lower footprints, they are still higher than most plant-based foods. 

 

So, what about fruit and vegetables? Why is seasonal food better for the environment? 

 

Eating seasonal fruits and veggies usually means less distance to travel from harvest site to plate. If we think about seasonality and dietary requirements, eating seasonally could help us step towards a more sustainable way of living, especially on a global level. We also have to consider that it’s not just how far food has traveled but the cost on the environment from production to consumption. 

 

Let’s break it down. 

 

If we grow tomatoes outside but out of season, we need heated greenhouses, which have a higher carbon footprint. Surprisingly, growing tomatoes in season in another country and then shipping them still results in lower emissions. 

 

As you can see, buying local produce doesn’t automatically make it the more environmentally friendly choice. While there can be environmental benefits of local produce, there’s a lot more going on that we need to consider. It’s not just about the location. What’s important is that we’re choosing in-season fruit and veg grown outside without artificial help. So, no heating, lighting, or refrigeration. Just some good old-fashioned sunshine and water. 

 

Are seasonal fruit and vegetables more nutritious?

Research suggests that eating fresh and seasonal fruit and vegetables is more nutritious. This is because the nutritional value peaks after harvesting and decreases over time. So, the longer it takes to transport and get your hands on fruit and veg, the lower the nutritional value. After picking, chemical changes naturally occur that eventually lead to spoilage and deterioration of the produce. 

 

(Quick shameless plug for kencko – through freeze drying the fruits and veggies that go into our smoothies, we essentially hit “pause” on these processes and preserve the nutritional content of the produce.)

 

That said, it’s important to know that eating any fruit and vegetables is still great for your health. While there appears to be some loss in micronutrients, they remain full of nutrients and antioxidants that our bodies love. 

 

So, should we eat seasonal fruit and vegetables?

The short answer is 100% yes. (The slightly longer answer is 100% yes, when possible, but any fruit and veggies is better than no fruit and veggies.)

 

There’s just something about sweet, in-season, and perfectly ripe fruit and vegetables. In-season produce is fresher and often cheaper than out-of-season crops. Buying local and seasonal fruit and vegetables is usually more environmentally friendly. 

 

 Reducing food’s environmental impact is a huge undertaking that will take effort from producers, consumers, and policymakers to identify solutions. Choosing local and seasonal produce is just one part of the sustainable puzzle, but one that as consumers we can do our best to directly impact. We can’t overlook other dietary behaviors that could have a greater environmental impact, like reducing meat consumption or lowering overall excess and waste. 

 

Eating fewer animal-based products reduces the demand for meat production. In turn, this means we need less land for animals and lowers the environmental damage that comes from the meat industry. It’s easy to think that an individual choice isn’t going to do much. But as a collective, people are powerful and dietary changes can result in a positive effect. 

 

A sustainable diet focuses on eating patterns that not only encourage healthy eating but have less environmental impact. To follow a sustainable diet, it looks like what you eat is especially important, not just where your food is grown. 

 

While it’s great to choose local and seasonal produce, taking a wider view of global seasonality can benefit the environment. It’s not always black and white, especially if you live somewhere with very limited growing seasons. All over the world, food can grow consistently in its natural and optimal conditions throughout the year. Eating seasonally can help to reduce our environmental footprint. 

 

Tips for choosing environmentally-friendly fruit and vegetables

Between misleading marketing and questionable labeling, it’s tricky to determine which fruit and vegetables are the most environmentally friendly option. Sometimes, you might see a sign of the country of origin, but it’s practically impossible to say if it was grown outside, in a greenhouse, or what type of transportation was used.

 

While the labeling catches up with the demand for transparency, here are some helpful tips we use to choose fruit and vegetables that are kinder on the planet:

 

1. Be wary of the combination of out-of-season, very perishable, and air freighted. When fruit and vegetables are perishable, it means they go off quicker. So, to counteract this, companies will use planes for transport which causes a massive uptick in food’s GHG emissions. Typically, this includes out-of-season:

 

  • Berries

  • Cherries 

  • Lychees

  • Passion fruit 

  • Asparagus 

  • Green beans 

  • Peas 

 

2. Out-of-season Mediterranean-style produce is usually grown in heated greenhouses or other more energy-intensive fashions, which in turn increases GHG emissions. Produce to consider reducing out-of-season include: 

 

  • Zucchini

  • Eggplant 

  • Cucumbers 

  • Peppers

  • Tomatoes 

 

3. Learn about your country or state’s seasonal produce so you can know what to look out for at the farmer’s market. The Seasonal Food Guide is another great place to start exploring seasonal food. 

 

Fruit and vegetables grown in optimal conditions in their natural season and consumed in the same country tend to be more environmentally friendly. These foods travel fewer miles and don’t need to rely on additional heat or light to grow. But remember that eating seasonal fruit and vegetables takes a step toward a more sustainable world. We also need to think about how reducing animal-based foods and food waste forms part of a sustainable world too. 

 

Want to eat more seasonal fruit and veg without worrying about the time of year? Add a kencko smoothie to your morning routine. We freeze dry our fruit and veg at the time of harvesting, securing all those nutrients our bodies need, and making for lighter transit weights.

 

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