Chilean Raspberries 2/$6

I stopped at my neighborhood grocery store last night on the way home from work (I think I may have a more mundane existence than most geeks on this buffet) and noticed as I went down the produce aisle a beautiful display containing tiny cartons of perfect raspberries. A sign next to the display said “Chilean Raspberries 2/$6.” What struck me was not the price of the berries, although it was pretty steep, but the idea that those raspberries had traveled halfway across the hemisphere to get here. In fact, as the crow flies, they traveled about 4700 miles. (The Internet is good for so many things, including looking up distances between two points.) How else would fresh raspberries be available in North Carolina in early March?

I thought piously to myself, “I would NEVER buy such fruit!  Too many food miles!” But then I examined the contents of my shopping cart and found the two items it contained were carrying a not-insignificant mileage burden themselves: organic baby spinach from California (about 3000 food miles); and grape tomatoes from Mexico (about 1500 food miles). I wasn’t so righteous about those items; I bought them and had them for dinner. But the experience did start me thinking…

It’s one thing to talk about eating locally, but another to contemplate that reality in the off-season. What would the produce aisle in my store look like if it contained only those fruits and vegetables that are available fresh locally today, right this minute? My guess is that we’d see sweet potatoes, collard and turnip greens, and maybe some turnips and cold storage apples. YUM.

I’ve seen estimates that anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of the fossil fuels burned in the US are consumed transporting food to and within the country. We in the developed world have come to expect a bounty of fresh out-of-season produce in our stores. So much that it’s trendy to discuss “food miles” and “eating locally” at dinner parties where liberals have congregated. And it sounds like such a good idea – in the summertime. 

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12 Responses to Chilean Raspberries 2/$6

  1. Mark says:

    BB,

    You raise an interesting point about the alternatives of accepting food transported across thousands of miles versus a massively limited selection, but many people approach this issue in terms of a middle-ground solution. Namely, growing out of season or non-regional produce locally. The argument is that if you grow food in a greenhouse near to where it will be sold, the cost (and energy consumption) of transporting it can be sharply curtailed.

    The irony, of course, is that this is often a losing proposition. I remember hearing a story on NPR’s BBC News program last month about how the math on this practice works out. According to the story, it takes less energy to grow tomatoes in Spain and ship them to Britain than to keep a greenhouse running in the colder British climate and grow them locally (~500 miles, depending on where in each country).

    I bet that spinach was good, too.

  2. laikal says:

    Eh,

    It’s not an all or nothing proposition. The point is not to convince people to flip over all at once to eating sustainably produced, locally-grown fare, since that is an obvious impossibility. You have to start by thinking about where your food is coming from, and, like everything else, you do the best you can balancing the tradeoffs.

    On the broader issue, it’s a health issue and an environmental issue, and it will be fixed one way or another. Nobody who believes in sustainable agriculture is going to lie to you and tell you that it means you can eat whatever you want when you want. That’s the way of things, however.

    (as an aside, there isn’t a casual connection between sustainable and local; that should be obvious.)

  3. goshawk says:

    Good thoughts Barbara. I have always thought that the real problem is that the price of energy doesn’t reflect it’s true cost to the world economy and society. If the true energy cost was reflected in the cost of transportation, people would make the right decisions about food miles because the price of the food item would accurately reflect the energy cost. We are moving in the right direction on energy prices and soon those Chilean Rasberries will be 1/$12. That will make the choices easier for everybody.

  4. laikal says:

    goshawk,

    Definitely. The sooner the true energy cost is reflected, the better :).

  5. B Barron says:

    There is much grist for the blog mill here. I recognize, as laikal points out, that the food-energy-environment-health paradigm is a complex one. The more you think about it, the more complicated it becomes! For example, when I shop at the NC Farmer’s Market during the primary growing season here, I am buying locally, but I’m NOT buying organic produce! At least if I am, the farmers aren’t advertizing the fact. I CAN get organic produce at the Carrboro FM, but then I’d need to drive 20 miles. It’s the trade-off thing again.

  6. TheGnat says:

    As far as the experience of winter fare goes: in Quebec in the winter, most people find that while non-seasonal, non-regional foods are available in limited amounts and variety, they are simply too expensive. And so people continue to eat traditional food in the winter, treating themselves to a few things like local hothouse tomatoes once in a while. Winter fare consists mostly of meat, potatoes, beets, bread, turnips, yams, onions, and more meat and potatoes. Even the deserts contain potatoes! (I’m not kidding either). There is a great deal of preserves and jams all around.

    There are other benefits to eating locally grown food: studies have discovered that the continuing rise in allergies may be because people (specifically, Americans) are becoming allergic to their own environments due to underexposure! Most allergens are rendered benign to their body as they are ingested. When you eat local honey, it contains some pollen. Since you’ve *eaten* the pollen, your body says “well, that’s sort of food, so it’s not so bad”, thus reducing or preventing an allergy to those kinds of pollen. So Americans would quite possibly see a reduction in their allergies if they visited say, Chile and Mexico.

    I personally prefer “naturally grown” to “organic”. There are a host of benefits, including taste, to non-organic foods. And some organic foods are actually not as good for you. Milk that has been pasteurized cannot be labeled organic, and pasteurization was a definte leap forward health-wise. On the other hand, I like to avoid pesticides on my plants and recycled cow-parts fed to my beef.

  7. Mark says:

    By what mechanism do we expect to integrate energy cost into the cost of food? Is this simply a matter of energy becoming more expensive, and thus forcing the price of products that require more energy to bring to market to rise? Or is there some more nuanced mechanism that gets tied into this?

    I guess my other question is how the “environmental cost” gets calculated. If, for example, I’m growing tomatoes in my greenhouse, I use a lot of electricity to heat it. However, I pay the same rate (or very close to it) for a kilowatt of electricity whether I live someplace that generates a sizable portion of its total output by renewable means as I do if I live in the next county over where they have an ancient, un-upgraded coal plant providing most of the juice. To go back to my example of tomatoes grown in Spain and shipped to Britain, there is a tiny province in Spain that generates more wind power than most of the rest of the EU combined, but there are coal plants located literally tens of miles from those turbine farms.

    At some point, the cost of the energy used (in economic terms, not environmental) is already built into what we pay for food. Is it enough to make these costs more realistic of their overall impact on the global system by simply allowing the price of energy to rise, or does there need to be some kind of artificial difference (or a market difference, though I’m not sure what, under current circumstances, that difference would be based on) between sources of energy?

    Perhaps this is a large enough topic to merit a post, rather than just an ongoing comment thread, but one way or the other, I’m interested in an informed answer to the question.

  8. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I have been thinking about where my food comes from as well and the trade-offs we make for the unseasonable things we eat. I had a discussion with others about this following the Michael Pollan article that ran in the NYT Sunday Magazine: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html?ei=5090&en=a18a7f35515014c7&ex=1327640400&pagewanted=print

    I just wanted to mention a website you might not have seen, related to this idea: http://www.100milediet.org/

    I don’t think I could give up olives, avocados, red peppers or pineapple, but I have been made more aware of how far these things have traveled to land on my plate. If there were such a thing as CSAs over here, I would try to subscribe. In the meanwhile, I plant my own tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and herbs in some planters on the roof!

    If you like this, you might like a book my mom just read on garbage — Garbage Land: on the Secret Trail of Trash. Got her bothered like Pollan. http://www.amazon.com/Garbage-Land-Secret-Trail-Trash/dp/0316738263

  9. […] BBaron posted earlier this month about how far our food travels to land on our plates. Having grown up in a family with a passion for gardening and having survived three winters and springs in Russia, I have been socialized to spend part of one’s summer tending one’s own crop. Anyone who does it knows that you can’t beat the taste of a home-grown tomato. There is no better way to know where your food is coming from than planting, tending and picking it yourself. However, considering I only have planters at my disposal and that I have to carry all dirt used up five flights of stairs, my enterprise is limited. My dad starts his tomatoes in January to ensure an early harvest and already has tall plants. But then, when it’s just me, how many tomatoes do I really need? […]

  10. […] BBaron posted earlier this month about how far our food travels to land on our plates. Having grown up in a family with a passion for gardening and having survived three winters and springs in Russia, I have been socialized to spend part of one s summer tending one s own crop. Anyone who does it knows that you can t beat the taste of a home-grown tomato. There is no better way to know where your food is coming from than planting, tending and picking it yourself. However, considering I only have planters at my disposal and that I have to carry all dirt used up five flights of stairs, my enterprise is limited. My dad starts his tomatoes in January to ensure an early harvest and already has tall plants. But then, when it s just me, how many tomatoes do I really need? […]

  11. B Barron says:

    Truly it is the dedicated gardener who carries the soil up five flights of stairs! As to your question of how many tomatoes do you really need? THERE ARE NEVER ENOUGH HOME GROWN TOMATOES!

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