How to eat vegetables this winter without increasing your carbon footprint

Make your diet green in every way.

local winter vegetables
Look for local winter vegetables at the supermarket.Depositphotos

To consume a healthy diet, you need to chow down on lots of fruit and vegetables. But stocking a supermarket with produce often involves shipping it long distances, which leaves a big carbon footprint—hardy eco-friendly.

In summer, you can avoid this problem by checking labels at the store or buying food at the farmer’s market. But once the snow flies, it becomes harder to obtain a variety of fresh veggies and protect the environment at the same time. Fortunately, with a little botany and some updated pioneer know-how, you can still eat a winter diet that’s green in every way.

Why can't winter produce go green?

In general, sticking to a vegetarian diet is good for the environment. But keeping carbon emissions out of your carrots is harder than it seems.

Because international shipping still enjoys some sweetheart tax breaks, any food can be grown anywhere and shipped anywhere, where it often costs less than locally-grown produce. This is why, for example, the U.S. banned Argentina's lemon exports for nearly twenty years: Even after the expense of shipping them north on boats and planes, the South American produce was still cheaper than California citruses.

For proof, just go to the store and check the country of origin of your favorite veggie. Odds are pretty good it crossed hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach your plate. All that shipping releases carbon emissions, which isn’t exactly good news for the environment. So how can you eat healthy and remain Earth-conscious at the same time?

There’s no perfect solution to reducing the carbon footprint of what you consume, but there are a few guidelines to follow.

  • Avoid processed foods. Processing, such as grinding grain into flour or meal, adds steps and energy to a food's preparation, increasing its overall carbon footprint.
  • Favor native crops. Native crops are generally better suited to your local ecosystem, so they require less fertilizer and fewer changes to the land. Plus, they likely won't have to travel as far.
  • Every step of food production matters. Do some research into how your food is made. For example, in 2006, researchers in the U.K. found that shipped-in lamb from New Zealand had a lower carbon footprint than local meat—almost entirely because the Kiwis run their farms and processing plants with hydropower, while the British relied on coal.
  • Everything changes. Remember that food production can change rapidly. In 2006, the UK was run almost entirely on fossil fuels, but it's phasing out coal and oil for wind power at speeds taking even hardcore environmentalists by surprise. And by 2020, the shipping industry will be burning cleaner fuel which may change the carbon math.

With all that in mind, here are a few practical steps you can take to keep your plate green and healthy—even in the midst of winter.

Know what grows locally, indoors and out

To avoid the emissions released during shipping, you can aim to consume more foods grown in your region. Plus, locally-grown food tends to have more beneficial ecological impacts like protecting biodiversity and reducing pesticide use. Just be aware that finding them might take a little work.

Start your search at the supermarket; thanks to consumer requests, buying local has become highly popular—although some stores have trouble finding enough local products to meet demand. Look for the country of origin label, which needs to be there by law.

You can also seek out new places to shop: Search for local farmers online, seek out winter farmers' markets, ask local community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups about nearby farms, or just start reading the addresses on food labels and stickers. For example, sites like LocalHarvest can help you track down farms in your area. Finally, take advantage of farms that use new eco-friendly agricultural tech, and if you live in a city, check out the burgeoning urban farming movement.

Don't stop there, though. Contact the farmers and ask them about their approach to ecology. You should try to find out whether they practice sustainable farming, such as crop rotation and soil management, whether they use renewable energy to power their work, how they heat their greenhouses, and how they ship and distribute their products. An organic label is not always necessary: Receiving certification from the USDA isn't necessarily possible or affordable for smaller farms. So don't write off small operations out of hand if you don't see the "organic" seal on the label.

Speaking of local food, research what's native to your area and which farms grow it—knowing what grows natively will help you make better choices at the grocery store. There's no single clearinghouse for this information, but as a jumping-off point, study what native populations historically ate in your area. This isn't to say that they simply consumed what already grew on the land: Especially in the Americas, native peoples have a long history of agriculture and agronomy, including introducing new plant and animal species to regions outside their traditional habitat range. But this angle starts you down the path of the history of local food, so it's your best option—short of calling a local botanist or ecologist.

Finally, learn to love winter vegetables: Many plants can handle surprisingly cold conditions and keep right on growing, or at least continue to produce edible parts. As long as the ground remains unfrozen, cabbages, gourds, and most root vegetables can thrive. In cold regions, these plants are more sustainable because they can grow closer to the store, and thus require less carbon-burning shipping. Buying local winter veggies also helps nearby farms stay open, ensuring they keep growing more produce in winter.

Eat (somewhat) like a pioneer

Back in the pioneer days, they ate everything—and we mean everything—because it was that or starve. We no longer risk starvation during the winter, but we can take a few lessons from those hardy travelers to vary our diets in the colder months and reduce our carbon footprints.

Pioneers bought enormous amounts of what were called "dry goods" for when the temperature dropped. That's because these supplies kept forever and they were easy to prepare—even if you were snowed in. Beans, for example, last for years; even really old legumes only need to soak longer to be just as edible. Flour can stick around for a year, as long as you keep the bugs out of it—and pioneers managed to do so without vacuum seals or air-tight containers.

Dry goods are still available at any grocery store, and these staples can add a lot to your winter diet. If you lay in a large stock and just draw from that, instead of driving to the store over and over again, you’ll save on gas. Plus, because you don’t have to keep them in the fridge, that further cuts down on the emissions

If you know you’ll miss summer vegetables, pioneer tactics can also help you plan ahead for the winter. You can preserve these foods for later by pickling, drying, or canning them. That way, you’ll be less tempted to buy fresh produce when the ground is frozen and you know it came from far away. Not to mention that it will add different flavors to all those cabbages.

Another step you can take is to start processing your own food. The more work involved in processing off-the-shelf food, the more carbon has likely gone into it. For example, with flour, grinding your own grain and baking your own bread can cut up to 40 percent of the emissions involved in baked goods. Fortunately, grinding your own flour or making your own burger is a lot easier than it was in the pioneer days, since we have blenders, automatic flour mills, and electric mixers to do the work. But before busting out the gadgets, ensure you're powering them with renewable energy, if possible.

Don't forget non-perishables

Finally, don’t forget the standard steps you can take to reduce your emissions year-round.

Walk, bike, or take public transit to the grocery store whenever you can. Make sure to bring reusable bags with you. If you need disposable cutlery and plates, avoid the plastics and instead buy bamboo or other sustainable products.

Bear in mind that not everything you need can be locally sourced. In those scenarios, look for ecologically-minded items: fair trade products, companies that offer renewable energy pledges, and reusable, biodegradable, or compostable packaging.

Speaking of biodegradable items, you can start composting your organic scraps, turning them into mulch for your garden.

With a little research, you can limit how much carbon comes on the side with dinner.