One of the questions I get asked a lot by people new to food storage and local eating is “But what about my COFFEE!!!???” Unless you are fortunate enough to live in a coffee-growing region, (which a majority of my readers don’t) local coffee ain’t gonna happen – and while chicory has its adherents, I’m told it isn’t the same (Eric and I are actually among the very few people we know who went through graduate school without ever getting addicted to coffee ;-)). Neither will true tea (herb teas can be produced almost everywhere), vanilla, many tropical spice, citrus, olive oil, etc… for many of us. So what’s a person committed to reducing the impact of their food to do?
Well, there’s a lot of good news on this front, but it requires that we make an important distinction about foods shipped long distance – whether they are “wet” or “dry.” Foods that are dry have had most of the water extracted from them by dehydration, natural or otherwise. Grains, most legumes, spices, dry herbs, coffee and tea are all shipped this way for the most part. “Wet” foods are everything else – whenever the foods are not dried in some way, but are shipped with their natural waters in them.
The difference is important because water is heavy. Moreover, before their water is removed, most foods are delicate and easily subject to spoilage. Consider the weight and shipping challenges of a tree full of ripe apricots and a tree full of dried ones. The former weighs many times more, requires more shipping space, faster shipping, refrigerated shipping and much more careful shipping. The same apricots, dried, take up 1/20th of the space, weigh about 1/20th as much (and use approximately that much energy to ship), do not require refrigeration, do not require special packing to prevent bruising, and there’s no huge rush in getting them there. Most of the energy being used to transport apricots (or anything else wet) is being used to transport water.
Now there’s nothing like the taste of a fresh apricot, but the reality is that all of us have to ask whether the price of transporting a fresh apricot across the world is worth it to us. Perhaps we can grow more apricots locally, or get them from closer in, or simply do without them and enjoy fruit that does well.
Coffee, tea and spices, however, are shipped dry, and consumed in comparatively small volumes per person. 365 tea bags per person weighs about a pound and a half (and would weigh less if you used loose tea) – even someone like me, a tea junkie, drinks less than 5lbs of tea a year, all shipped dry. I use my spices with a liberal hand, but a quarter lb of nutmeg will do my household for a good long time.
If we assume that all international shipping is never going to stop (and world trade has been going on for thousands of years, so I think that’s a fairly safe assumption), then we should think about what kind of trade is most environmentally responsible. Coffee, tea and spices, shipped dry, represent high-value crops that impoverished areas of the world can use to bring dollars from richer places, without undue environmental impact. Buying from cooperatives or fair trade certified organizations that ensure that money goes to the grower, rather than the middle-man is really a key point here, as is focusing on the kinds of agricultural practices that matter. Supporting the kind of small scale, integrated and diversified agriculture that you want to see in the world is something worth doing, so buying shade grown coffee from small growers is a good thing.
By and large, you don’t have to feel too guilty about your morning cuppa. That glass of orange juice, however, is probably considerably more problematic. If you do live in a cold climate and want to make changes that have an impact, start there – switch to a cup of tea, herb tea, coffee, local cider…