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The High Cost of Low Cost, High Carbon Lettuce

I headed to the food pantry to do another pickup. It was 99% lettuce, which the flock should love.

While I was cutting open and dumping out literally hundreds of bags of lettuce, I got to thinking about cheap lettuce and the high cost of it from the environmental standpoint.

The lettuce I was dumping out was a mix of shredded iceberg and "salad blends". This lettuce was probably grown in California (71% of all head lettuce grown in the US is). Iceberg lettuce is 96% water. California is in a severe drought.

The lettuce was picked, washed, cut, and bagged in a plastic bag. Of note, cutting and wetting lettuce makes it rot faster! Then it's driven by refrigerated 18-wheel semi across the country to Rhode Island. That's roughly 3,000 miles or 44 hours straight of driving.

The stale, cut, wet, plastic-encased, fuel-guzzling lettuce then hit a store shelf, where it sat for a few days, and when it's sell-by date approached, it was donated to the food pantry. They did their best to give it away before it was too far gone.

The rotten lettuce, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, and all the drought irrigation and fuel it represents, would have ended up in the landfill to create methane as slowly decomposed underground.

The lettuce instead fed chickens for a day or two. The cardboard gets composted or burned in my backyard fire pit (ashes get mixed into the compost pile).

The system is imperfect...there's really no way for me to wash and recycle the plastic bags at any kind of scale, so they still end up in the landfill. I guess that fact that one bag of plastic bags ended up in the landfill instead four bags and four boxes full of lettuce and plastic,

Yesterday, for dinner, I had some great lettuce. It was super fresh, crisp, and delicious. It was grown hydroponically in a converted warehouse in Providence (20 miles from my front door). It was grown by a company called Gotham Greens, which has similar setups up and down the eastern seaboard.

I imagine the lettuce cost a little more than the stuff I was dumping on the compost pile. But good, sustainable food may cost a little more. But it only costs more when you ignore the environmental cost of the other way, that artificially lowers the price.

The bad news is the cost difference between good, sustainable food and food made by "the machine" isn't free. It's a tab that keeps getting added to. Some day, it'll come "payment due".

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