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Asparagus: The skinny vegetable that casts a big shadow





By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

If you ask most people which food has the largest impact on our environment, be it in terms of carbon footprint or sustainable production, they would probably say beef. While beef is a food we need to pay close attention to, the question we should be asking, pun intended, is does your fruit fly?

With spring right around the corner—OK, maybe not exactly around the corner where we live—we start to get excited about fresh, flavorful and nutritious produce.

During this time of year, grocery stores begin to alter some of their offerings. But maybe you’ve noticed that most grocery stores have essentially the same produce. Naturally, there will be more variety in a Whole Foods located in California, south Florida, or Texas (its home store), but by and large, the bulk of produce available to us is the same everywhere. This is not a coincidence.

Produce is highly perishable, so retailers need to minimize the chance of spoilage. And one of the most economical ways to reduce spoilage is to stock products that have the longest shelf life.

But the scientific community looks at something else: climate impact. And this is where asparagus comes into play.

One of the things scientists and ecologists take into consideration is the total greenhouse gas emissions from production. While it can be challenging to quantify, they look at kilograms of CO2 produced per kilogram of food. It seems common sense that beef products would be substantially higher, given their mass, but I was surprised to see asparagus come in so high: 8.9 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of food, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Asparagus produces more greenhouse gases than almost all other produce in your produce aisle. Per kilogram, it produces more than eggs, milk, chicken and pork. And it’s not due to annual or seasonal planting, as asparagus is one of just a few perennial vegetables.

One of the things I didn’t take into consideration was flight. Tender and delicate fruits and vegetables usually require air travel. Because they are time sensitive, they are shipped in relatively small shipments in fairly frequent intervals. Most produce boxes and crates state the country of origin. A little basic geography will tell you if it’s been on an airplane.

It all sounds simple, right? Well, not really.

On the one hand, we’re conditioning ourselves to shop locally—that supporting our own local and regional economy is paramount. It’s something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time. But think about how far our dollar stretches when we buy a fruit or vegetable from a developing nation. And consider this: Is it better to buy a fruit or vegetable flown in a large quantity that feeds many, or to drive your Denali across a metropolitan city for that local tomato?

Perhaps we should eliminate the ability to see how much something costs until we reach the cash register. How many items would you keep and how many would you put back? The simple answer is: it’s not that simple.   

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.


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