Everything we eat has energy costs and contributes in some way to global climate change. Omnivores and vegetarians alike have realized meat is generally very water- and energy-intensive. Sheep are especially carbon-intensive because they burp large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. Read this story for some facts on the environmental impact of meat.
Vegetarians, however, are not exempt from considering the carbon footprint of their food choices. Some fruits and vegetables are more energy-intensive than others. Of course, plants capture carbon, but that doesn’t make them carbon-negative or even neutral. Global agriculture production and transportation methods sometimes generate much more carbon than the plants can capture. Many factors are calculated into the carbon footprint of a banana or potato, but a simple combination of energy required for planting plus energy needed for transport give a rough estimation of energy costs.
As a general rule, eating local fruits and vegetables in season reduces the costs and energy inputs of transportation — possibly the biggest factor in the carbon cost of fruits and vegetables. However, not all non-local fruits and vegetables are the same.
For Europe and North America, it can be tough to only eat local and in-season, so here are the best ways to minimize your carbon footprint in the produce section.
Best fruits and vegetables for the earth
Potatoes and onions can grow in a variety of climates without too much water or effort. Even in northern climates, local potatoes are often available year-round. They are also stored without refrigeration.
Strawberries and other seasonal berries are also low-carbon. They grow readily without much soil tillage (which releases large amounts of carbon) in many areas — in season. Your tastebuds will probably tell you if the berries are shipped from halfway around the world, even if your store doesn’t.
Worst fruits and vegetables for the earth
Tomatoes are among the most widely used ingredients in the world. However, most of them are grown in heated greenhouses. Even tomatoes that aren’t labeled as "hothouse" are typically grown with artificial heat. Each pound of supermarket tomatoes is estimated to produce 10 pounds of carbon from seed to your dinner table.
Bananas and other tropical fruits also aren’t so sustainable. Rarely grown in northern climates, bananas typically must travel long distances quickly to avoid spoilage.
What about beer?
Finally, take care raising a toast to a potato and strawberry diet. Large quantities of hops and other grains go into every energy-intensive bottle of beer or whiskey.