Why Local, Organic, In-Season Food Is The Right Choice

When you eat locally grown, in-season food, you make an impact far beyond your local market.

harvest green peppers tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil

Organic, garden grown tomatoes, peppers, garlic and herbs.

There’s more to organic gardening than just swapping one kind of input for another. It in fact requires you to change the way you think about the soil, air and water, how your choices impact your local ecosystem, and how this way of growing affects the person who eats the plant. Which is usually you and your family. It involves a completely different way of thinking, called “ethical living”. When we practice ethical living, we make decisions locally which create as little impact as possible on our environment. These local decisions can have a very long tail.

Many reading this page grew up gardening with chemicals, myself included. In those days the idea was to blast every garden insect you could find with insecticide and add huge amounts of petroleum-derived, nitrogen-based fertilizers to your plants so they grew ginormous fruits and vegetables. We know now that this was a recipe for disaster and completely unsustainable. We were warned in 1962’s Silent Spring and again in 1971’s Diet For A Small Planet, but thanks to massive marketing and PR campaigns from the Big Ag companies, those warnings were largely drowned out.

Now we’re faced with the hard truth that insects have become resistant to the pesticides invented to kill them and so much synthetic fertilizer runs off farm fields that green algal blooms consume thousands of square miles of the world’s waterways (see these pics in National Geographic). This is the unfortunate side effect of trying to increase crop yields as arable land decreases, the world’s population increases, and the standard of living rises in what used to be known as third world countries.

These consequences of technology now make it imperative that we support local growing and farming and eating in-season food as often as possible. For we gardeners, that includes growing as much of your own fruits and veggies as you can in an organic garden, the very definition of ethical living.

in-season food green tomatoes on truck

These green tomatoes picked in Florida are shipped to Northeast markets in winter

The importance of eating in-season produce can’t be understated. Here in the Northeast in January, I can buy a tomato in my local market. Any gardener knows that tomatoes are a warm season crop – they require 75-85 degrees air temperature, warm soil, lots of light and just the right amount of water to properly mature. In Pennsylvania, depending on the cultivar, this happens in July-August-September. Obviously those “fresh off the vine” tomatoes in January aren’t grown anywhere close to where I live. In fact, that tomato was probably grown in Florida, picked when it was green and rock hard, packed on a truck (or worse, an airplane), dosed with ethylene gas to encourage it to ripen en route, then gassed with more ethylene in the “ripening rooms” of the wholesaler before it was trucked to my local market. Yummy. (Ethylene is a naturally occurring hormone in plants which regulates the ripening of the fruit – ethylene gas encourages fruit to ripen early)

The carbon footprint created just so I can eat that tomato in winter is astounding:

  • energy used to manufacture fertilizer which was used in the field to grow the tomato
  • energy used to work machinery for seeding/planting, harvesting and processing
  • energy used in refrigeration – on farm, in transit, in warehousing
  • energy used in Food Miles – number of miles and by what methods the food traveled to reach my table

Indeed, a compelling argument for buying local. But there’s another side of the equation, which is why I also stress in-season food. That same January tomato might have been grown locally in a hothouse, reducing the food miles, but requiring vast amounts of heat. If the heat was produced by fossil fuels the local tomato might actually have a larger carbon footprint than the tomato which traveled from Florida. Quite a dilemma, isn’t it?

Now suppose I grew that tomato in my organic garden in summer, using nothing but homemade compost from kitchen scraps and yard waste.  In September, when fully and naturally ripe, I blanche it and put it in the freezer. When I defrost it and eat it in January, it would be far superior in flavor and nutrition to the market tomato, even with the slight loss of flavor that comes with freezing. Additionally, the nutritional content of my tomato which  matured fully on the vine would be superior to the tomato harvested when green. My homegrown frozen tomato may not be fit for slicing in a salad, but it would be great in sauces or soups.

The carbon footprint for my homegrown tomato is quite smaller:

  • energy used to ship seed to me (if heirloom seed saved from previous season, eliminate this)
  • energy used to boil water
  • energy used in refrigeration (if home canned, eliminate this)
  • energy used to make plastic storage bag or glass jar

Ethical living – eat local, eat in-season food. The choices you make locally have far reaching consequences which you sometimes can’t begin to fathom.

About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google
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5 Responses to Why Local, Organic, In-Season Food Is The Right Choice

  1. Pingback: A final round-up of great blogposts from Blog Action Day #BAD11 | The New Optimists

  2. Points well taken. I believe in eating seasonallly, and preserving the harvest. I believe in eating locally as much as possible, in fact if I want to do so I wind up producing much of my food. That said, I thank the farmers who produce the food no matter where they may be. To eat totally local would mean giving up oranges, lemons, olives and many other food stuffs that I am unwilling to sacrifice. Like most of life choices, I believe in moderation.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the comment, Joyce. I certainly love my share of oranges and lemons, too (organic). I just want readers to consider wiser food choices than they might otherwise be making.

      • Emily Suess says:

        “I just want readers to consider wiser food choices than they might otherwise be making.”

        Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      • Samuel says:

        I agree that the government is not going to be the key to changing our food system. The key is using the free market to demand the products we want. Legislation is too messy anyway. (it is part of the reason we are in this situation).Great article!