Food Seasonality

Walking into almost any grocery store, you can find any produce that you want or need for your cooking endeavors. Watermelon can be bought in December, and butternut squash can be found in July. While consumers attribute these plants to seasons, all produce is available for purchase outside of its most popular season. This phenomenon of selling produce outside of its growing season introduces complicated problems for the environment and for consumers’ health. 

Each fruit and vegetable thrive during a specific growing season. During these, the weather and climate in a distinct region allows for produce to grow successfully. Growing seasons are at least ninety days long, but can span the entire year in certain tropical regions. Since farmers and growers cannot control the weather, the produce they are able to grow is at the mercy of the local climate and how well it aligns with the weather needed for certain crops to grow. In some tropical locations, the warm weather should allow for year-round crop growth, but excess or limited precipitation interrupts the crops’ ability to actually grow. The growing season of areas with stable precipitation are mostly dictated by the temperature; the cold winters are detrimental to plants’ ability to grow. The weather therefore dictates when certain plants are in and out of season and are able to grow. 

Despite the obvious time periods during the year when different crops can grow, consumers have access to the same produce year round, meaning that fruits and vegetables are grown outside of their natural window of ideal conditions. This is because of farmers’ manipulations of plants and the environments they are grown in. Season extension is the classification for different techniques for expanding the natural growing season of plants used by farmers.  For example, crops can be covered during the winter so that they do not frost over, allowing for them to thrive in cold temperatures. Techniques that allow for plants to sustain life during adverse climates enable farmers to sell and contribute fruits and vegetables when they are not naturally in season. 

These techniques are not utilized in countries other than the US, as climates differ and allow for year-round growing seasons. The ability of countries to grow fruits and vegetables have led to imported fruit being the majority of the fruit sold in America. Over half of all produce eaten in the US was imported, according to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. This rapid increase in imported fruits and vegetables drastically impacted the market. As the quantity of imported produce increased, it has become more accessible and affordable for consumers to buy both in and out of season produce. Many public health experts view this shift in the market as a good thing because of the increased opportunities for the American population to eat plants in their diet. 

Americans having access to foods that are out of season, whether domestic or imported, has been associated with negative impacts on the environment. Domestic produce that was grown with many machines, tractors and pesticides, ultimately emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that has been associated with increased temperatures). Even though local produce may be grown in a state close to where the food is sold, the process of growing and harvesting both in and out of season produce strains the environment. 

Yet concern about the environmental impact of importing food also exists. Imported produce must be flown and delivered to the US, traveling via cargo plane. The many miles that these foreign grown fruits and vegetables have to travel to reach the US relies on the burning of fossil fuels. However, other sources continue to argue that fertilizer usage in local farms emits more carbon dioxide than importing food on a plane.

While it is nice to buy butternut squash during June, the lengths that some farmers had to go to cultivate that crop are immense and could negatively impact the environment. Extending growing seasons, when done incorrectly, not only goes against nature but harms it as well. It may be impossible to always buy and eat food that was grown during its specific growing season, but it is important to reflect when possible. 

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