I am a farmers market fiend.
The ability to “eat local” is glorious for a gastronome, and late summer abounds with gifts of heirloom tomatoes, juicy melons and colorful squashes. Farmers markets boast the most succulent produce, hands down, and I discover some newfangled specimen each season. Giving your food dollars to local farmers nourishes businesses, and supporting regional agriculture preserves land and protects biodiversity. And it just feels good to commune with similar spirits in the commons about something as fundamental as food.
Yet amid baskets of blueberries lie mountains of misinformation: Farmers market fiction is as copious as the produce, folklore fueled by junk science. Below are five myths you’re better off ignoring so you can make the best choices for your health and our planet.
Eating local is the best thing you can do for the environment
Local goodies have fewer food miles, as they travel a shorter distance to your plate than food crossing the globe. But you can’t conclude automatically that your local apple has a smaller carbon footprint than the imported one at the store. Economies of scale matter, as does mode of transport; millions of apples arriving by ship often have fewer emissions per unit than thousands traversing by truck. Paramount is how food is produced: A seminal study estimates that production contributes 83% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to only 11 percent for transportation. In other words, what you eat is the biggest contributor to climate change, not where you shop. Since raising animals requires intensive inputs (like water, food, fuel and land) and many produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, the best thing you can do to protect the planet is eat less meat.
Local vegetables and fruits are more nutritious
Although soil can impact nutritional composition (like selenium), and species genotype also plays a role, any given plant is what it is. All apples, for example, provide vitamin C, fiber, water and phytochemicals: How produce is picked, transported, stored and prepared impacts nutrient content more significantly than where it’s grown. For instance, a carrot picked at its peak, flash frozen on site, stored in your freezer, then steamed briefly for supper can have more beta-carotene than one plucked days later, transported by truck, and which has sat at the local market in the heat, brought home, and resided in your fridge until you ate it who knows when.
Local seafood is more sustainable
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Most people don’t consume enough seafood for optimum health, but choosing fish is complex. Many local species have been overfished to the point of extinction, and those from nearby waterways may even be more contaminated with mercury or other toxins. How seafood is caught also makes a difference, as some methods lead to copious food waste discarded as bycatch.
For these reasons and others, farmed fish (aquaculture) can be the most environmentally sound option. There are myriad issues to consider when determining what seafood is most sustainable and nutritious; downloading a science-based app can help you make an informed choice.
Local food is safer
The life cycle chain from farm to fork is often shorter and more transparent within regional systems, which can aid in identifying sources of outbreaks. Yet there are no conclusive data that farmers markets are safer, and local systems can lack the quality control of larger outfits with tighter regulations. Wares sitting in hot temperatures are a bacterial breeding ground if improperly stored, too. Moreover, farmers markets are replete with raw products sold under the pretense of health — though the Food and Drug Administration reflects scientific consensus showing that unpasteurized foods carry a far greater risk of food-borne illness.
Farmers markets are cheaper
Although you can find terrific bargains, farmers market prices are generally comparable to or higher than other shopping spots — and the exorbitant price of organic local foods even makes me gasp. Meals made with high-quality ingredients are magnificent, and carry a matching price tag. Yet I and others who scour farmers markets like a kid in a candy shop are fortunate, as we have the time, money and opportunity to do so. Studies show that supermarkets and big box stores, in contrast, feed people with less expense and effort, critically important for those struggling to get supper on the table.
Local foods are increasingly available, making it easier than ever to support all the good things they represent. While not a panacea, local markets will doubtless play a delicious role in solving today’s complex food problems — and they already do in the developing world. If you’re not yet wandering through your vibrant farmers market, there’s no better time to titillate your senses with the season’s best. Grab your bag, ditch the myths, and take pleasure in food that tastes better than any other.
Main photo: Fresh mushrooms and herbs at Borough Market in London. Credit: Copyright 2016 P.K. Newby