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Like fruit, definitions for vegetables vary. In basic culinary terms, a vegetable is a herbaceous plant (classified by the source of edible part(s)—root (carrot), leaf (cabbage), bulb (onion), etc.), which is eaten with or as the main course of a meal.[1] Tomatoes, melons, and some other plants are botanically fruits yet are classified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as vegetables.[2] Whatever the definition, the economic and nutritional merits of vegetables—from field to kitchen table—are beyond doubt.

Global production of fruits and vegetables grew from .81 billion metric tons in 1990 to 1.2 billion metric tons in 2002 with vegetables comprising 60 percent of total tonnage.[3] California is the top domestic producer of vegetables, yielding, for example, 80 percent and 75 percent of the nation's broccoli and spinach supplies, respectively.[4] The global market for fresh vegetables hit $7.5 billion in 2002, up 11 percent from the previous year. The United States is the leading importer of fresh vegetables and the second most-active exporter behind Mexico.[5] The potato, in all its variations, is the most popular vegetable among American consumers, with the average person eating over 140 pounds of the vegetable each year.[6]

The chief environmental concerns about vegetable production and trade revolve around two issues. First, were chemical pesticides and fertilizers and unsustainable farming practices used to grow them? And second, how many miles did a vegetable travel from grower to grocer and how exactly did it get there?

Buy local

Because different vegetables thrive in different climates and terrains, vegetable-growing is often regional. For example, potatoes are associated with Idaho, okra with the South, and so on. Although regionally produced, most vegetables are subsequently traded on a national (and international) scale, making "food miles" an issue to consider. Researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have developed a Transport Environmental Impact (TEI) rating that considers both the total mileage traveled by produce from grower to grocer, as well as the mode of transportation. They are also exploring the idea of creating an eco-label to help consumers select produce grown and shipped with the least environmental impact.

In some cases, locally-grown produce isn't the most eco-friendly choice. For example, a pound of produce trucked through the 31-mile Channel Tunnel from France to England requires more fuel—and emits more greenhouse gases—than shipping that same pound of produce by sea from New Zealand. Therefore, the produce imported from New Zealand has a lower TEI rating despite having traveled a greater geographic distance.[7]

However, in the United States, where 90 percent of domestic produce is transported by truck, it's reasonable to disregard TEI ratings and buy produce grown as close to home as possible. Leopold Center researchers found that conventionally grown US produce travels up to 27 times the distance of its locally-grown counterparts. Thus, garlic grown and sold in Iowa is transported an average of 31 miles to reach buyers, compared to 1,800 miles for conventionally grown and distributed garlic.[7]

In many cases, local (and organic) food also has the advantage of better taste.[8] If, for example, a tomato is grown in California and shipped to New York City, it has to be picked well before its peak ripeness if it's going to arrive on the East Coast in a condition that allows it to be sold. While a tomato continues to develop in color and texture during storage and shipping, sugar production ceases the moment the tomato is picked from the vine. Therefore, a tomato shipped across the country is not going to taste nearly as sweet as one picked locally the day before purchase. As a result, many of the best chefs demand locally grown produce for their restaurants.[9][10]

Buy organic

The organic food industry—worth $23 billion in 2002—is growing with annual consumer demand rising an estimated 20 percent each year. Although organic food, including produce, can be found in 73 percent of traditional grocery stores and supermarkets it accounts for only 1-2 percent of overall food sales in the United States.[11][12]

Like other food products, vegetables must meet criteria set forth by the USDA to be officially certified as organic. It must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated.[13] Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are not only believed to be harmful to human (see Related health issues below) and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways.[14] It's estimated that approximately 670 million birds are exposed to agricultural pesticides annually with 10 percent dying as a result.[15]

Below are conventionally grown vegetables containing both the highest and lowest amounts of pesticide residues.

  • Heavy pesticide residues: Bell peppers (green), bell peppers (red), celery, cucumbers, green beans, potatoes, spinach.
  • Low pesticide residues: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, corn, green onions, onions, sweet potatoes.[16]


The move toward organic farming has also received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, believes organic farming techniques to be detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he notes that the low yields of organic farming results in the destruction of more land, while the use of the synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, spinach, in a small area of cultivated land.[17] Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resultant increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.[18]

A 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, revealed that organic produce often travels farther than its conventional counterparts in order to reach kitchen tables. Due to the harmful CO2 emissions associated with long-distance transportation of food items, the environmental benefits of buying organic are essentially canceled out. For example, to reach Edmonton, organic green peppers had to travel from Mexico, whereas conventional green peppers would have shipped from the US or elsewhere in Canada.[19]

Organic Certified products are also accused of being devices that retailers use to target consumers for whom price is no object, regardless of whether the product in question carries environmental and/or economic benefits.[17]

The politics behind the USDA's term "Organic" complicates matters further. The National Organic Program (NOP) was developed to enable large, conventional farms to more easily transition into organic production, and therefore develop the industry.[20] Initially, small farmers feared that the standardization of the term organic would push them out of the market, as the logistics and cost of applying for the certification often exceeds their means. Since then, small farmers have been able to secure their niche in direct markets, though for those who sell to retailers, the label "organic" helps their sales. Additionally, in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California[21], Julie Guthman notes that organic practices fall notably short of the agro-ecological ideals that were originally established during the 1960s and 70s. Despite its drawbacks, monoculture is still the primary model of growing on large-scale "industrialized" organic farms. Finally, labor rights and migrant worker health and safety is not included as a criteria in organic certification, so may still be of concern on large, industrialized farms.

Related health benefits and concerns

The daily intake of vegetables is a proven way to maintain a healthy body and mind. Benefits include the reduction of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, bone loss, and various cancers. Vegetables contain different nutrients and vitamins that target specific bodily functions. For example, vitamin C-rich green bell peppers aid in iron absorption and the potassium found in soybeans regulates blood pressure.[22]

For many, the choice to eat organic produce is mainly about ensuring that such a beneficial food group offers the most health benefits possible—meaning not grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. A report by Pesticide Action Network North America found that American consumers are exposed to toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) up to 70 times a day. POP exposure has been associated with immune system suppression, nervous and hormonal system disorders, reproductive system damage, and various cancers, including breast cancer. Two vegetables frequently contaminated by POPs are radishes and spinach. The two leading POPs found in food are dieldrin and DDE.[23]

Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of pesticide ingestion due to their lower body weights and higher metabolisms. Every day, more than 1 million children between the ages of one and five eat an estimated 15 pesticides on contaminated fruits and vegetables. Six hundred thousand of these children eat dosages of pesticides deemed unsafe by the government.[24]

Conversely, supporters of pesticide use in farming believe the chemical levels in conventional foods are appropriately regulated by the government and too low to adversely effect human health.[13]


  • genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.[25]
  • food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.[26]
  • persistent organic pollutants: POPs are toxic chemicals that were, and in some instances still are, used in agriculture for pest and disease control and crop production, as well as in manufacturing. Although many POPs have been banned, they remain in the environment and global food chain, easily traveling via wind and water.[27]
  • dieldrin: An insecticide, widely used on crops from 1950 to 1970. It was used to control termites until 1987, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all uses. Exposure to dieldrin occurs through eating contaminated foods such as fish, root crops, and dairy products. Build up of dieldrin in the human body can lead to nervous system disorders.[28]
  • DDE: A breakdown product of once-common pesticide DDT, which has been banned in the US since 1972 but still enters the environment through use in other countries (where it isn't banned). Human exposure comes from eating contaminated leafy and root vegetables and fatty meat, poultry, and fish. Studies show that women with high amounts of DDE in their breast milk are unable to breastfeed as long as women with low levels of DDE and are at increased risk for giving birth prematurely.[29]
  • monoculture: A method of farming in which one type of crop is planted over a large space. Although this method allows for the specialization of machinery to manage the crop, and large yields are often achieved, there are ecological drawbacks. Nutrients in the soil become depleted more quickly, prompting more chemical fertilizers to be added. Monocultures also are more susceptible to massive pest-caused damage because of the way they concentrate resources in a continuous space. Nutrient and water waste cycles also tend to be less enclosed in a monoculture, causing large amounts of runoff and pollution in natural ecosystems.[30]

External links


  1. Purdue University - Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture
  2. Slashfood - Watermelon is a vegetable, says Associated Press
  3. Agricultural Marketing Resource Center - The Evolving Global Marketplace for Fruits and Vegetables
  4. Life in the USA - Fruits and Vegetables In America
  5. US Department of Agriculture - International Trade Report: World Trade Highlights in Fresh Vegetables
  6. US Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service: Calcium-Rich Potatoes: It's in Their Genes
  7. Science News Online - Local Foods Could Make for Greener Grocers
  8. The Food Project - BLAST Youth Initiative: Why to Eat Local
  9. The Soil Association - Does Organic Food Taste Better?
  10. Food Navigator - Organic foods taste better, claims new poll
  11. Organic Moniter - The Global Market for Organic Food & Drink
  12. Amber Waves - Organic Agriculture: Gaining Ground
  13. Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Are organic fruit, veggies worth the extra cost?
  14. Modern Brewery Age - Hops in beer often laced with pesticides, writer says
  15. Pesticides and Birds Campaign - The Problem
  16. Eartheasy - Pesticides and Produce
  17. The Economist - Food politics: Voting with your trolley
  18. - Norman Borlaug
  19. Medical News Today - Organic Food Miles Take Toll On Environment
  20. US Department of Agriculture - The National Organic Program: Organic Food Production Act of 1990
  21. Guthman, 67Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California68 (University of California Press, 2004)
  22. - Inside the Pyramid: Why is it important to eat fruit?
  23. Pesticide Action Network North America - "Nowhere to Hide" media release
  24. Environmental Defense - Challenge: Ensuring Public Health by Protecting Food and Drinking Water Supplies
  25. ProQuest CSA - Genetically Modfified Foods: Friend or Foe?
  26. Organic Consumers Association - Food Bytes: USDA Propaganda Event Will Accompany Release of the Controversial National Organic Food Standards
  27. US Environmental Protection Agency - Persistent Organic Pollutants: A Global Issue, A Global Response
  28. US Department of Health and Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: ToxFAQS
  29. US Department of Health and Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: ToxFAQs
  30. University of California, Berkley - Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming



To substantially lessen your footprint on the earth, I would suggest going vegetarian or vegan. Recommended reading, "Diet for a Small Planet."

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