When Local Food Helps Fight Climate Change — and When It Doesn’t

by Luc Reid
This article originally appeared in the Williston (Vermont) Observer

Burlington Farmers Market

Burlington Farmers Market

We Vermonters have it made where it comes to local food. While our growing season is short, we’re long on Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, farms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and gardens.

After Hurricane Sandy, I got interested in local food as a way to help fight climate change. On average, food is the fourth biggest household contributor to climate damage (after transportation, electricity and combined home heating and hot water). Unfortunately, it turns out that “local” doesn’t always mean “low climate impact,” but a few pointers can help us know when it does.

One of the best ways to lower our food footprint is to eat more plant products and less meat. For example: according to carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee, half a pound of strawberries grown nearby in season has only about 1/20 of the climate change impact of, say, a cheeseburger. Cows (as well as sheep, goats, llamas, buffalo, deer, etc.) eat grass and emit methane, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as bad as CO2. This gives dairy products a larger footprint and puts red meat among the worst climate offenders compared to pork (not as bad), poultry and fish (better), or in-season vegetables and grains (best). Some plant-based alternatives to meat include tofu, seitan (“wheat meat”), and beans.

Local grass-fed beef, though there are very good things about it, unfortunately has about the same climate impact as anonymous beef from far-away factory farms.

The other big climate troublemaker among foods, believe it or not, is the evil twin of those local strawberries. Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. For example, hothouse or air freight strawberries are almost twelve times as bad for the climate as local, seasonal ones. Other big offenders include out-of-season cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

Some plant foods from distant parts aren’t so bad. Bananas, for instance, are usually shipped by low-impact methods like boats, and they don’t have to be rushed or refrigerated, so their footprint is quite small.

In Vermont, we have root vegetables, apples, and preserved plant foods (like pickles, dried tomatoes, kimchi, and frozen strawberries) available throughout the winter. Additionally, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, which offers weekly food pickups throughout the state, grows foods like spinach and mesclun right through the winter in greenhouses that are heated with used vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels.

Of course, there’s no fresher, more local food than what comes from your own back yard. Gardening isn’t always easy, but it can be a fun and relaxing hobby at home or in a community garden, and there’s no way to beat your own fresh corn or tomatoes. Beyond the garden, other great home growing opportunities for Vermonters include blueberries, hazelnuts, and stone fruits like plums. Even if you don’t have a yard, it’s often easy to grow some greens or strawberries in containers on a porch or stoop, and beyond the great taste, eating your own produce connects you with your food in a way nothing else can.

Even food grown at home generally isn’t free of climate impact, though. Careful use of water and building materials, together with avoiding chemical fertilizers and sprays, can keep that footprint small.

Here are a few tips for shrinking your climate foodprint:

  • Include more plant foods and less meat in your diet as well as you can while still meeting nutritional needs
  • Local and regional foods usually have a smaller impact than ones from far away
  • Organic foods are usually more climate-friendly than non-organic ones
  • Poultry and some kinds of fish and shellfish have a lower footprint than pork and dairy, which in turn have a lower footprint than red meat
  • It’s estimated that in the U.S., we waste up to half of the food we produce! Buy no more than you need and use what’s in your refrigerator to keep waste down and save money.

In This Case, a Quiet Blog Means Progress

You may have been wondering why it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve posted–or more likely you’re thinking “Oh, he didn’t post for two weeks? I hadn’t noticed.” Regardless, the reason, I’m glad to say, is that I’ve been walking the proverbial walk more than talking the proverbial talk lately. Here are a few things that have been going on lately with our family:

  • Built a tool to help people find CSAs. It only has information for the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York so far, but the CSA Matchmaker walks you through a few simple questions to suggest the best fit for you in finding a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) plan that works for you. With CSAs, you make a deal directly with the farmer, paying up front or over the course of the season in exchange for regular (usually weekly) shares of produce and sometimes other products (cheese, bread, eggs, meats, prepared foods, etc.).
  • Joined a new CSA. We’ve participated in two great local CSAs in the past, but were looking for the widest possible variety of food and a pickup location that we could manage more easily. I used the CSA Matchmaker myself, and we’re now enrolled in a year-round CSA that provides not only produce, but also bread, cheese, honey, a few prepared foods, grass fed and organic meats, and more–all locally raised.

Solar design

  • Went solar. After hearing about SunCommon from Jamie Ervin, we got in touch and had our site evaluated for solar panels to meet our electricity needs. Even though our house is surrounded by trees and our best roof exposure is essentially west-facing rather than south-facing, the solar possibilities there are good, and we’re in process for getting solar panels that will supply almost all of our energy needs (sending extra electricity produced to the grid and taking energy back from the grid when we need it and aren’t producing enough). The cost for us is a fraction more than our normal monthly electricity bill, though for other people who don’t have some of the same constraints we do (a vent pipe that has to be moved, another house connected to ours that makes us require special permitting, south-facing roof, etc.) the cost might be at or below your monthly electricity bill.
  • Started our gardens. I have never been a gardener: the best I’ve done is a little weeding here and there. We’ve had a garden the past two years, but Janine has been doing all the work and hasn’t been able to keep the whole thing up on her own. This year, having become much more conscious of the importance of local food, I found a garden teacher (Peggy, Head Gardener at the local cooperative garden business Gardeners’ Supply) and am replacing the fence, moving the compost system, starting worm bins, weeding like crazy, and otherwise moving forward on getting our vegetable garden in place and some gardening knowledge in my head.


  • Cut back on driving. For a long time I had considered cutting back on driving essentially impossible. There’s a commuter bus from my home to my workplace, but it takes an hour longer in travel time every day and leaves on a schedule that’s difficult for me to work with. Also, almost every work day I have somewhere I have to be after work, so I can’t take the bus–except that, of course, I can. I’m moving my work schedule earlier in the day so that by getting up a bit earlier, I can work a slightly earlier shift and still be back to my car in the commuter parking lot before I need to pick up my son, get the CSA share, show up at Taekwondo, or whatever it is that day. I’m able to use the extra time I spend commuting working–because I don’t have to drive while I’m doing it. The cost is comparable to the gas and wear and tear on my hybrid car.
    I’ve also gotten together with the parents of a couple of friends of my son to carpool for after school activities, lowering car usage more. This will be an ongoing process, but there’s already less gas having to go into my car.
  • And this, and this, and this and this and this … Beyond these projects, I’ve been planning out a Kickstarter designed to implant a vivid image of what our communities need to become to withstand and fight back climate change, am adding some very substantial new local foods tools and resources to the Localsourcers.org site (more on that soon), and am otherwise trying to push back against climate change in every way I can.

If you don’t hear from me for another two weeks or so, assume it’s all going great … not that I’ve dropped dead of exhaustion.

Food Everywhere: An Urban Orchard in Burlington

Last night I went to the regular meeting of the Burlington Food Council, where food and sustainability organizations from around the Greater Burlington area meet to share information and collaborate on sustainable food projects.

There’s a lot going on in sustainable foods in the Champlain Valley, but the most inspiring topic for me was the Urban Orchard. To give you an idea what I’m talking about, there’s this 13-minute TED talk by Pam Warhurst from Todmorden, England. It’s not only kind of wonderful what they’re doing, but Pam is a lot of fun to listen to, and not just because her accent echoes a couple of the characters from Downton Abbey.

Man, what a great talk. I need to steal some of her slogans, e.g. this one on who can participate: “If you eat, you’re in.”

So anyway, what’s going on in Burlington? Well, the idea is to start introducing food-producing shrubs, trees, and other plants into available green space in the city: parks, lawns of public and commercial buildings, by the road, and anywhere else that the residents of the immediate neighborhood want it. The food is free to anyone who wants it, and residents get involved in maintaining, pruning, and planting on a volunteer basis. This has been so successful in other cities around the world that volunteers end up harvesting thousands of pounds of produce to give away to food banks and shelters, to say nothing of all the free food that’s available to local residents and anyone walking by. The idea of food without a price tag is a little mind-boggling in the present day, but in city after city, it is already working. It’s a wonderful idea.

Since this is Vermont we’re talking about, I say “orchards” and you probably think apples, like I did, but it turns out that apples attract pests like nobody’s business, and that there are a lot of other crops, both ones that are commercially viable and ones that aren’t, that are well-suited to our climate and could be grown instead. This includes garden vegetables and herbs, but also stone fruits like plums and peaches, pear, berries, nuts, and much more.

For instance, consider the slope behind Battery Park. In case you don’t know Burlington, Battery Park is on a high area in the North End overlooking the lake. A steep slope is covered with miscellaneous wild growth kept cut back by the city to maintain the gorgeous view of the waterfront that Battery Park affords. At the bottom of the slope is another park area along with a theater, restaurants, the ECHO center (a lake and science museum), a boat that runs tours around the lake, the bike path, and much more. The city government wants to follow through on a decades-old plan to build staircases down the slope from Battery Park to Waterfront Park, and they’re looking for ideas. One magnificent idea (if you ask me) that was discussed last night is a terraced orchard of fruit and nut trees, fruit shrubs, berries, and other edible foods. Alternatively, another location could become home to a kind of botantical garden of all-edible foods, a Food Forest.

These kind of initiatives beautify the city, attract tourism, help feed local residents and visitors, and create more community connections. They also sequester carbon and lessen dependence on food from distant locations, which also lessens dependence on all of the oil that goes into fertilizing, pest-fighting, transportation, storage, packaging, and marketing. Next to a backyard garden or family farm, food doesn’t get more local than just down the street.

These kinds of plans are just in the exploratory stages right now for Burlington, but maybe you could consider whether there might be an easy way to start getting edible foods into public spaces in your own city or town–or if you’re in our area, maybe you’d like to eventually get involved with this effort. If so, stop by www.localsource.org and join the group there, or watch this space.