Orange juice, tomato toast and coffee with milk. This is probably the most common breakfast in coffee shops in our country at any time of the year.
The toast can also be whole wheat bread or cereal. We can add some slices of ham. Even, in certain establishments, we can already substitute the tomato for avocado.
But beyond tastes, is this breakfast environmentally sustainable? The answer depends mainly on the month in which we consume it.
How to get products out of season
The cultivation of fruits and vegetables is one of the few production processes that is still highly influenced by the climatic conditions of the region of origin. If we want to consume them all year round, we have several options:
Store them in cold rooms until consumption.
Produce them locally in greenhouses.
Import them from those regions where that crop is in season.
All three options have potentially detrimental effects on the environment, in terms of water footprint and carbon footprint (collects the total water and CO emisiones emissions necessary for the product to reach our table):
Cold rooms increase the carbon footprint, since they require abundant energy.
Greenhouse cultivation increases the water footprint. When producing out of season, water that is scarce in the region is used.
On the other hand, production in greenhouses, depending on the geographical location where they are located, may require heating systems. Furthermore, it generates a lot of plastic, the production and disposal of which has detrimental effects in terms of water, energy and other pernicious consequences on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Imports increase the carbon footprint. Products have to travel thousands of kilometers to reach the final consumer.
This year, the Cambridge dictionary has coined the term climatarian (climarian): person who chooses what he eats based on what is least harmful to the environment. How should a climariano choose his fruits and vegetables?
Imports with lower carbon footprint
Although more and more consumers are aware of local consumption to avoid the footprint derived from transport, imports are not always the worst option in environmental terms.
In some cases, imports of fruits and vegetables could reduce the carbon and water footprint. This occurs when they come from regions where they are in season, if the region has a more abundant endowment of resources (water and sun), if they are used efficiently or if production generates less waste and scrap.
In a work published in Environmental Science & Technology, we focus on studying the impact of imports of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Spain in terms of water and carbon footprint.
The objective is to assess whether its substitution by local products is environmentally beneficial or harmful. In practice, this would imply some annual variations in the typical breakfast.
In summer, instead of orange juice, we would take seasonal fruit salad with watermelon, cherries and apricot, for example.
Local is not synonymous with sustainable
Our results show that there are few occasions in which the consumption of fruits and vegetables produced in Spain is harmful in terms of carbon and water footprint.
Due to the high environmental efficiency of the Spanish agricultural sector, the consumption of local and seasonal products in Spain is associated with a lower carbon and water footprint than imported fruits and vegetables.
However, when locally produced fruits and vegetables that are not in season in our country (oranges in August or zucchini in January) are consumed, the carbon footprint and, above all, the scarce water footprint, increase significantly.
In these cases, the best thing for the planet would be to consume local products that are in season (for example, Tomelloso melons in July) or import those fruits and vegetables from other countries (South African oranges in July).
These imports, contrary to what the well-intentioned climarians might suppose, would entail a significant reduction in the water footprint (up to 121% in the month of January). This is because the regions from where these products are imported have more water resources. To a lesser extent, the carbon footprint could also be reduced (4%).
What can consumers and stores do?
Economics manuals tell us that the consumption decisions of individuals depend on their income, price and preferences. Custom, tradition, culture are important factors that also affect our choices (the Mediterranean diet is a good example).
However, there are other variables. Advertising tries to influence our decisions and the availability of all kinds of fruits and vegetables at any time of the year has made consumption less and less guided by local temporality.
Citizens’ concern about the impact of their consumption on the planet is increasing. Faced with this situation, the challenge for science is to find a way to transmit information to them in a simple way so that they can make sustainable consumption decisions.
An alternative would be to use an eco-label that indicates when imports of fruits and vegetables require less water and less carbon emissions than local products.
This badge would inform whether it is more sustainable to import, for example, pineapples from Costa Rica in October (when we normally eat more mandarins) or in January (when we consume more oranges).
For their part, supermarkets could promote sustainable options by offering baskets of fruits and vegetables that incorporate both local and imported products, but with a low carbon and water footprint.
Cafeterias should have information on these sustainable baskets and incorporate them into their breakfast menus, similar to what is done with allergens or vegan options.
For example, without taking into account coffee with milk (it would be necessary to consider whether it is fair trade, the type of livestock production, etc.), in environmental terms, the juice of oranges produced in Spain would be more conducive to winter and Tomato toast best suited for summer.
María Ángeles Tobarra Gómez, Contracted Professor PhD of Fundamentals of Economic Analysis, Castilla-La Mancha university; Ignacio Cazcarro, Senior research fellow, Zaragoza’s University; Luis Antonio López Santiago, Professor of Fundamentals of Economic Analysis, Castilla-La Mancha university; Maria Angeles Cadarso, Professor at the University, specialist in Economy and Environment, Castilla-La Mancha university and Nuria Gómez Sanz, Professor / Researcher in Environmental Economics, Castilla-La Mancha university
What is a Climarian?
“Climariano” is a valid alternative in Spanish and preferable to the English voice “climatarian” with which the person who chooses what to eat is called based on what is least harmful to the planet, says the Urgent Spanish Foundation, promoted by Agencia EFE and BBVA.
The English word “climatarian” is already included in the Cambridge dictionary, which defines it as “a person who chooses what he eats based on what is least harmful to the environment.” By extension, it also begins to apply to those who try to calculate their carbon footprint and try to minimize it changing the habits of your daily life.