Comment: As the world becomes more environmentally aware, consumers are looking at the role of fruit and vegetables in their diets, says fresh produce industry body United Fresh.

With the spotlight on climate change growing hotter by the day, consumers are starting to think about what they can do as individuals to save the planet.

Experts agree that small incremental changes make a difference, so the motivation to do the right thing has never been greater.

With that in mind, many people are re-examining the role of fruit and vegetables in their diets and how these nutrition power-houses can effect positive change in the world as well as in the body.

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Some research shows that red meat is one of the highest emissions-intensive food in our diets and indicates that a move towards a plant-based diet may be a great way to contribute towards saving the planet.

These studies showed that greenhouse gas emissions were 22-29 per cent lower for those on a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet than those with a diet high in meat.

A plant-based diet could also benefit consumers' wallets, as buying fresh in-season produce can mean an affordable way to contribute positively to the environment.

Carbon positive

Vegetable and fruit growers around the country are working towards finding innovative ways to reduce the already small amount of carbon that their operations produce with crop management, storage and transport identified as areas in which further carbon-savings could be made.

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In the apple industry for instance, over one million new trees are planted each year, a positive contribution in terms of carbon credits, as well as a delicious result for consumers.

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Winners of the HortNZ Environmental award, Trevelyan's Pack and Cool are a kiwifruit pack house with strong carbon credentials.

Beginning with a plan in 2012 to reduce emissions across their operation, they have succeeded in not only reducing emissions by 25 per cent per tray of kiwifruit packed, but also have managed to reduce their waste to landfill by a whopping 77 per cent.

Providing an outstanding example of climate-friendly management, the company's efforts have proved popular, attracting a record number of growers to their business.

A bad wrap

With the plastic bag ban now in place, the next step in the war on plastic is food wrapping.

Supermarkets and growers around New Zealand are seeing the positive results of a switch to "food in the nude" with some supermarkets reporting a rise of as much as 300 per cent in the sale of some categories of fresh produce without the plastic packaging.

As individuals, kiwi shoppers can contribute to this movement by bringing their own reusable fresh produce bags and by always choosing the unpackaged items where possible.

Use it or lose it

Globally, one third of all food produced for human consumption is thrown away and of that a huge 45 per cent are fresh fruit and vegetables.

As this waste breaks down it contributes a total of 8 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Making the most of all of fresh produce is key to making a positive climate contribution, whether it's by shopping more carefully (only buy what you need) or by getting a bit more creative in the kitchen (using leftover vegetables in winter soups), there is plenty consumers can do each day to better manage waste.

For growers, fresh produce waste also represents a challenge to reducing their carbon footprint.

A recent initiative between the government, sustainable recyclers Eco Gas and T&G Global's tomato growing division will see a waste-to-energy plant constructed which will convert up to 1000 tonnes of tomato vine waste and 20,000 tonnes of other organic food waste from surrounding businesses into energy to run the T&G Global glasshouses.

Photo / File
Photo / File

It's not all about looks

The rise of "Ugly Fruit" is another step in the drive towards sustainability and the reduction of food waste.

Huge efforts are being made to increase the popularity of "cosmetically challenged" produce, which often ends up in landfill because it doesn't meet retailers' beauty standards.

As awareness of massive food waste grows, major retailers are now experimenting with sales of less-than-perfect produce that may otherwise be wasted.

Sold at a discount, they're a great option for budget-conscious shoppers.

Major miles

So much fresh produce is transported around the country, clocking up food miles that become yet another source of CO2 pollution.

As consumers, each of our purchase choices can make a difference to reducing this climate changing gas.

First and foremost consumers should aim to buy locally-grown and in season produce, however, it's often not that simple - food transported long distances by ship uses much less fuel than everyone driving to the supermarket in their cars.

Consumers could consider buying through a delivery service - one van delivering fruit and veges to multiple households is much more efficient than the same number of consumers driving to their local supermarket.

Close to the source

Proximity to growers is a real issue for many, particularly those in larger cities.

With only 50,000 hectares of land in New Zealand used for commercial vegetable production, it's unlikely consumers will find a number of growers of a wide variety of produce close to home.

As urban areas increase, so too does the pressure on our food growing land, such as the Pukekohe "Food Bowl", an area of arable land responsible for a large chunk of all the fresh produce consumed in the Auckland area.

In summary

With just a few minor changes and a little bit of thought and energy, consumers can contribute to making a positive impact on the planet.

Fruit and vegetables are set to be the superstars of this new movement, providing superior nutrition for a much lower carbon footprint than any other food group.

Growers and orchardists around the country are joining with consumers in adapting their processes to make our fresh produce industry not only greener but smarter and more future-focused to provide a better world for us all.

- United Fresh New Zealand has over 28 years' experience supporting and promoting the New Zealand fresh produce industry, providing leadership on pan-produce issues.