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Why eating regional isn't always eco-friendly

Kiyo Dörrer
December 14, 2016

Eating local food is becoming increasingly popular, with regional products even being dubbed the "new organic." DW reporter Kiyo Dörrer tried out eating strictly local for a week - and made some surprising discoveries.

Wettbewerb Regionale Lebensmittel Eating local challenge
Image: DW/K. Dörrer

It's 7 p.m. on Tuesday - 43 hours into the #HowGreenAmI challenge - and I am sitting in front of my favorite food, sushi, unable to eat it. It's the annual Christmas dinner from work, and my colleagues are happily feasting away on Atlantic salmon and American rice, while I have set myself the challenge to eat only food from Germany for a week. Needless to say, I am already deeply regretting it. 

The practice of eating only food that is produced locally has been attracting increasing followers over the past years. The "locavore" movement was spawned in San Francisco in 2005 - where mainly city dwellers eat only food grown and harvested in a 100-mile (160-kilometer) radius of where they live.

Buying regional produce is supposed to be more sustainable than buying foods shipped or even flown thousands of miles across the globe - because it cuts down on carbon footprint, and at the same time supports local farmers.

The idea of eating local is also very popular in Germany. This year's report on the eating habits of Germans, conducted by the German ministry for nutrition and agriculture, shows that three-quarters of Germans surveyed prefer to eat local produce over imported items.

Bigger German cities like Berlin have seen a surge in restaurants specifically serving local foods, while others rely exclusively on ingredients produced strictly in the region.

But is eating only local doable for a normal working person like me? To find out, I decided to go full "locavore" for a week.

Eating local challenge
Canteen food: Eating local doesn't necessarily mean eating healthyImage: DW/K. Dörrer

Taking stock and sacrificing

On Monday morning, a look into my fridge and cupboard shows that almost all of the fruits and vegetables had traveled thousands of kilometers to get to my kitchen table.

The tomatoes, lemons and bell peppers come from Spain or Portugal, the limes were even shipped from Mexico. All the noodles are from Italy, while the rice was produced in the United States. Apples are the only thing that was clearly local, so I donate the rest to my flatmates.

My daily morning coffee is now also a no-no. The smell of black delicious gold wafting across the street from coffee carts on my way to work silently mocks me.

For my fist lunch, I go into the crowded canteen and peek at the food on offer. The friendly cook I chat to informs me proudly that most of the side dishes do come from Germany - as long as they are not heavily processed.

But in essence, that cuts out noodles, rice of course, wedges, and gratin, and leaves pretty much only boiled or fried potatoes.

Nor is most of the meat from Germany - it comes rather from nearby, cheaper-labor countries like Macedonia, Bosnia or Poland.

The salad bar is mostly off-limits as well, since bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers do not grow in wintery Germany - let alone olives or eggplants. I shuffle out with a sad plate of boiled potatoes and cabbage salad, jealously ogling my colleagues' antipasti platter.

It's on day three - when the jovial canteen guy gives me the head's up for German chicken and fries - that I realize: Eating the local option does not necessarily mean I am getting the healthiest food.

Eating local challenge
Certainly not seasonal, however definitely local: strawberries on offer in DecemberImage: DW/K. Dörrer

Cooking from scratch

So preparing food myself seems to be the best way to go. Acquiring local produce is easier than I thought - even the supermarket chain I usually frequent has a product line dedicated to local fruits and vegetables.

But a quick round of research reveals that "regional" is not a regulated label - the exact origin of the packaged food I have in my hands is not specified. 

The farmer's market in front of my house also offers local produce, most of it seasonal: cabbages, broccoli, pumpkin, and potatoes are dominant here. But to my surprise, I also find fresh strawberries from Germany.

"Most probably, they were grown in greenhouses," Elmar Schlich from the nutrition and consumer education center EVB Koblenz, tells me on the phone - making them carbon sinners. "Eating seasonal is definitely the key, more than strictly adhering to a region," Schlich explains.

Producing non-seasonal food or even storing produce over a long period of time uses up a lot of energy, Schlich explains. Meaning: An apple imported from the southern hemisphere can have a lesser carbon-footprint than buying a months-old German apple off-season, stored using large amounts of energy.

Carbon footprint infographic

This challenge is getting more difficult and complex by the minute, I realize, while my stomach starts churning with hunger. In the ensuing round of shopping, I obediently grab only what can be harvested now - a limited selection mid-December, to be sure.

Since the mostly brown food I acquire makes me wonder whether I am missing some vital vitamins, I call up Uta Peiler, a nutritionist in Bonn.

"Eating only local per se is healthy, and can bring back seasonal produce that people don't eat that much of anymore, but which is generally very healthy - for example, Brussels sprouts or red cabbage. The bitterness contains necessary vitamins," Peiler says.

Local and fresh means more flavor

And also - local food tastes different. The dinner I make from mushrooms, pumpkin and German egg noodles can only be seasoned with salt, since neither pepper nor chilies grow in Germany.

But the champignons especially give off more flavor than I am used to from supermarket mushrooms. On top of that, I realize that I am consuming much more consciously, and I am getting into learning about what is seasonal, so I can try to go from what's available.

This is also the philosophy behind the restaurant Nobelhart&Schmutzig in Berlin. The Michelin-starred eatery serves only foods strictly from the region. "The idea of eating everything all year round is wrong from the get-go," owner Billy Wagner tells me.

"We want to see what the region has to offer, and get creative with what we have," he says. Even the seasoning is local - the tang of lemon is replaced with whey, while mustard and horseradish provide spiciness.

Eating local challenge
What Bonn, Germany, has on offer seasonally in DecemberImage: DW/K. Dörrer

Eating local is a full-time job

For the week, eating becomes a task that has to be meticulously planned beforehand. Grabbing a snack on the go is not an option - because especially with processed food, it is very hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the ingredients. Perhaps clearer labeling or even any kind of standard could help there.

Besides which, most of my favorite foods are just not produced in Germany, regardless of season: pasta, grapefruit, salmon, rice, tea, coffee. And of course, my all-time favorite: salmon avocado sushi.

"There are just foods that cannot be produced in Germany, or can be produced with fewer emissions outside of Germany, even counting in the transport," Schlich says.

The upshot: "There is more to eating sustainably or 'green' than just sticking to one region, like using the car less to do the actual shopping, ordering vegetable boxes, or eating seasonal and less meat."

Restaurant owner Wagner also concludes: "Thinking about what you eat, and what impact that has, is a start."

Amen to that - and now please excuse me while I look up recipes for all the cabbage I bought.