Lesson 1: Seasonal food production: a way to reduce environmental impact

1.1. What is seasonal food production?

Each type of fruit and vegetable has its own set of specific conditions for ideal growth and quality. For this reason, fruit and vegetables are grown and harvested in different locations and in different seasons throughout the year. For example, oranges are climate-sensitive plants and grow better in places with hot dry summers such as Spain, Italy, and Greece.

The term ‘seasonal’ is not well-defined and changes depending on the context it is used in. For some, ‘seasonal’ is synonymous with foods harvested ‘locally’, for others it is closely connected to cultural events and for a third group, it involves reconnecting with the origins of the foods and learning about the natural growing seasons. While these are worthy definitions and reasons for eating more ‘seasonally’, the differences show the lack of clarity around the term and how complicated defining ‘seasonal fruit and vegetables’ can be. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the main aspects depend on when the foods were produced and where they were consumed:

  • Global seasonality: based on where the food is produced. Foods produced in season but not necessarily consumed where they were locally harvested (e.g. apples grown and harvested during the growing season in New Zealand but eaten in Europe during the spring and summer seasons)
  • Local seasonality: based on where the food is produced and then consumed. Foods harvested and eaten locally during the natural growing season (e.g. apples grown and harvested during summer and autumn, and eaten in October, in Europe.

Source: https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/are-seasonal-fruit-and-vegetables-better-for-the-environment


1.1. The benefits of seasonal food production and consumption

Producing and consuming seasonal and local fruit and vegetables benefits both health and the environment. Apart from the better taste and lower price, seasonal food is fresher and more nutritious, especially considering that most of the vitamins and minerals contained in fruits and vegetables are normally lost within 24 hours after being picked. Moreover, many studies revealed that it drastically reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked to the supply chain.

By using LCAs (life cycle assessments), researchers have found that the global food system accounts for around 26% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with big differences in how much GHGs different types of foods emit. In general, fruit and vegetables have lower GHG emissions compared to animal products such as beef and dairy (10-50 times lower).

The environmental benefits of seasonal fruit and vegetables are often attributed to the shorter distances they travel. While the type of transportation might be significant,  the contribution of transportation to the carbon footprint is usually lower than the emissions coming from the methods of production. While climate-controlled greenhouses can mean less land used, less food wasted, lower pesticides and high yields, the energy needed to operate these buildings is significant.

The overall picture that emerges from existing related research is that fruit and vegetables with the lowest GHG emissions are those grown outside during their natural season without much use of additional energy and consumed in the same country or region instead of fruit and vegetables that are grown under protection, are imported or stored.