Urbanites reconsider the climate cost of food | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 01.03.2013
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Urbanites reconsider the climate cost of food

Buying local produce reduces the carbon footprint of our meals, so why aren't shoppers interested? One German farmer offers city-dwellers the chance to work the land, so they can appreciate the climate cost of food.

The fruit and vegetable stalls a the farmer’s market in Bonn open very early in the morning. The stalls are piled high with bananas, oranges, apples, strawberries and pineapples. These fruits have traveled a long way to get here. The oranges are from Spain, the bananas are from Ecuador and the grapes are from South Africa.

Fruits like bananas and oranges simply don’t grow in Germany’s northern climate. If you want them, imported produce is your only option. But there are also apples from France in the stalls at the market – a fruit abundantly available in the fields near this market. In fact, apples make up 90 percent of the total harvest from fruits that grow on trees in Germany. But, Michael Bung, a vendor fruit vendor at the market, told DW that France simply produces the apples more cheaply. "There are several vendors who sell apples from Germany but there you have to pay 2.50 euros ($3.26) per kilo. At my booth you get 2 kilos of French apples for 2 euros ($2.61)."

Fruits and vegetables sold at a market in Bonn (Foto: DW/Elizabeth Shoo)

The imported apples available at this market in Bonn are cheaper than the locally produced varieties

Climate consquences

It may not be reflected in the prices at the fruit stall, but there are climate costs attached to the apples produced in France. Thomas Rahne runs an environmental issues education program in Germany called Geoscopia. He and his colleagues give workshops on climate change issues and teach children about the carbon footprint of the products they use.

The carbon footprint of a product is the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted as it is being produced and brought to the consumer. "The problem is that during the transportation a huge amount of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas, is released into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases make temperatures on earth rise," he explained.

Im Hafen von Manaus Amazonia Brasilien / At the port of Manaus Amazonia Brasil

Fuel and packaging are used to transport tropical fruit

But at the open fruit stand in Bonn, climate isn't what most people are thinking about when they make their selection. For some, buying imported fruits and vegetables is all about getting products with a better taste.

One shopper holds up pineapples imported from Ghana and decides to take two. "A Brazilian friend of mine once came to visit me and said that the fruits and vegetables here in Europe have a boring taste,"she told DW. "I tell you that tropical fruits are really delicious. I like eating apples from here but I also like eating pineapples."

But diesel may have been used in the plantation where these pineapples were grown and harvested. Were they sprayed with pesticide? Were they packed in disposable boxes or plastic wrap before being put on the ship to Germany? Were they refrigerated for the journey? What kind of fuel did the truck bringing them from the harbor to this market use? All of these activities increase the carbon footprint of the pineapples.

Spanische Tomaten auf dem Many vegetables are imported to Germany from Spain (Foto: DW/Elizabeth Shoo)

Germany was one of Spain's best customers for fruits and vegetables in 2012

According to West Africa Fair Fruit, a growers' association, imported pineapples from Ghana have a very large carbon footprint. For every kilo of pineapple, one kilo of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Forced to import

There may not be any pineapples available near this market in Germany, but many farmers here believe local food is both tasty and marketable. Leonhard Palm runs an organic farm and encourages people to eat local foods. "In the winter you can eat lamb's lettuce," he said in an interview with DW. "I don't have to import salad from France or Spain."

Leonhard Palm owns an organic farm and rents out small vegetable gardens (Foto:DW/Elizabeth Shoo)

Leonhard Palm rents out farm plots for climate education

In the winter Palm does by imported vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini from Spain and Italy. He would prefer not to but explained this is what his customers want. Germany imported 2.27 billion euros ($3 billion) of fresh produce from Spain last year, becoming the country’s top export buyer.

Grow it yourself

Palm thinks a good way to reconnect city-dwellers with their food – and the environmental costs associated with it – is to get them out into the vegetable patch. He rents out small plots near Bonn, for about 180 euros ($235) a year. He told DW the response has been very positive.

"People like it very much. They see it as a balance for the huge amount of office work they have to do," he explained. "There are many families with kids that say let’s do something where the kids will also have fun."

The farmer says vegetables like zucchini and spinach grow well and don't need a lot of special attention. It’s an easy first crop for even the most inexperienced farmer. Palm believes that the hobby farmers on his land aren’t just growing food, they are making a personal contribution to curbing climate change.

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