Spring has fully sprung, which means it’s farmer’s market season. Farmers markets are social hubs that bring us closer to our communities, local producers – and, most importantly, our planet.
Food production accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes our dietary choices one of our most powerful spheres of consumer influence.
There are hundreds of farmers markets in the United States (and all over the world!). If you’re not sure where to find one nearby, visit this national farmers market database. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmshare boxes are another way to fill your kitchen with farm-fresh goodies.
When we eat close to home, we support small-scale agriculture and keep more money in our local economies – and we also help shift our food systems in other important ways.
While most supermarkets have a limited selection of organic produce, three-quarters of farmers market vendors say they use practices consistent with organic standards. Over 80% incorporate processes to support soil health and nearly half use integrated pest management to reduce pesticide use.
At the farmers market, the vendor selling your food is often the person who grew it. Ask about their methods – how do they nurture a healthy co-existence between their farm and the surrounding habitat?
Reduced Transportation Emissions
The average meal travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate; but local produce travels about 27 times less distance than conventional supermarket products. Since most transportation runs on fossil fuels, we cut our carbon footprints when we buy food grown close to home.
Local foods aren’t just better for the planet. They’re often fresher, which means they’re tastier and more nutrient dense.
Farmers markets make it easy to eat with the seasons. As warm weather rolls around, leafy spring greens give way to a rainbow of summer produce. Supermarkets, on the other hand, offer year-round access to any product we want.
Unfortunately, there’s a climate tradeoff to eating food outside of its natural growing season. Producers must use energy-intensive hothouses or refrigeration units, and more fertilizer than they would otherwise, to grow and preserve off-season produce.
Research suggests eating seasonally has an even greater impact on our carbon “foodprints” than eating locally. That’s because production methods usually create a greater share of food emissions than transportation.
Bonus: seasonal eating is good for the planet and your wallet. Food tends to costs less when it takes less energy and resources to produce.
Biodiverse and Resilient Food
Did you know that over 40% of our daily calories come from three monocrops: wheat, rice, and corn? Relying on just a few, genetically-uniform crops, makes food systems more vulnerable to pests and devastation, and more reliant on chemical fertilizers and pest control.
Compared to modern hybrid varieties (the majority of supermarket produce) ancient grains and traditional or heritage crops are far more resilient and adaptable. When we eat diets rich in a variety of these foods, we safeguard our food future by supporting biodiversity, soil-health, and crop resilience. Plus, it’s good for our health!
Restore Ties to Nature
If you ask Robin Wall Kimmerer (acclaimed botanist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass) how to restore the relationship between land and people, she’d tell you: “plant a garden.” Getting dirt beneath our nails helps us reconnect to natural carbon cycles and cultivate reciprocity with nature. Research suggests it also boosts serotonin and reduces stress and anxiety.
After growing food ourselves, farmers markets and CSA boxes are the next best thing – they act as anchors relinking modern urbanites to our Earth and ancestors.
Supermarket products are often heavily packaged to prevent damage and keep them fresh. Foods that travel straight from farm to market tend to use far less. Plastic and other packaging can persist in our environment for generations – so this matters.
If you bring your own bags and produce satchels, it’s easy to leave the farmers market with zero packaging in tow.
Less Food Waste
An estimated 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables don’t meet supermarket cosmetic standards; most are left unharvested and used as compost. At the farmers market, you’re far more likely to encounter the full spectrum of odd, ugly, and equally tasty produce.
The US wastes 40 million tons of food annually – and the majority happens on the consumer end. Cut your contribution by only buying what you need, eating perishables first, and freezing what you can’t finish.
These benefits matter, but they’re only part of the puzzle
Farmers markets and CSAs make it easier to align your spending with your values and support responsible agricultural practices. Local and seasonal eating nourishes our connection to the planet and has numerous environmental and health benefits; however, it doesn’t automatically make your diet climate-friendly.
That’s because when it comes to food system emissions, what we eat has a relatively larger impact on our dietary emissions than even how it is grown and sold.
For example, transportation and packaging each account for around 5% of the average American’s food emissions. Even if you switched to eating only local, unpackaged food, you’d reduce your dietary emissions by 10% at most.
For a climate-friendly diet, what you eat matters most.
About 80% of food emissions come from farm processes and land use.
Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. This land was once forest, grassland, and jungle habitat that sequestered carbon and supported thousands of different plant and animal species. Some foods - like animal products - require a lot more land, which increases their environmental impact.
Farm processes create emissions, too. This includes fertilization and pest control, but also emissions from manure, feed production, and farm machinery. It also includes ruminant species like cattle and sheep, which produce potent methane gas when they digest food.
Regardless of how they’re produced, meat and dairy can generate between 3 to 50 times more emissions than plant-based foods.
The key to a climate-conscious diet? Eat more plants!
Sticking to plant-based foods is the single most sustainable choice you can make at the farmer’s market. (In fact, adopting a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your carbon footprint in general.)
Many folks view plant-rich diets as privileged or expensive. But in high-income countries like the US – they can actually be more affordable. Research suggests vegans spend about 40% less on food than omnivores. Even flexitarians, who eat small amounts of meat and dairy, save about 14% on their grocery bill.
Eating plants is good for the planet, our health, and our wallets. So, next time you’re at the farmers market – pack your bag with produce.
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