As consumers increasingly aim to make environmentally responsible food purchases, they need to base their decision on sound science. However, according to a presenter at the recent Cornell Nutrition Conference in Syracuse, N.Y., the ‘intuitively correct’ food choice is often the least environmentally friendly option.
Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, told the audience of animal nutrition specialists that, "as a food industry, we must use a whole-system approach and assess environmental impact per gallon of milk, pound of beef or dozen eggs, not per farm or per acre." This important distinction is the basis of a ‘life-cycle assessment’ approach, which evaluates all inputs and outputs within the food-production system, and allows us to correctly compare different production systems.
"Consumer demand for milk, meat and eggs is going to increase as the population continues to grow," Capper says. "Therefore, the vital role of improved productivity and efficiency in reducing environmental impact must be conveyed to government, food retailers and consumers."
Intuitively, today’s modern production practices often seem to have a higher environmental impact than the "idyllic" management practices of the 1940s. Nonetheless, when assessed on a whole-system basis, greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk produced are 63 percent lower. In 2007, the U.S. dairy industry produced 8.3 billion more gallons of milk than in 1944, but due to improved productivity, the carbon footprint of the entire dairy farm industry was reduced by 41 percent during the same time period.
Pasture- or grass-fed meat also is growing in popularity, with the perception that it is more eco-friendly than conventionally produced beef. However, the time needed to grow an animal to slaughter weight is nearly double that of animals fed corn. This means that energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef are increased three-fold in grass-fed beef cattle. In total, finishing the current U.S. population of 9.8 million fed-cattle on pasture would require an extra 60 million acres of land. Again, the intuitively environmentally friendly option has a far higher resource and environmental cost.
Another emerging trend among American consumers is the desire to purchase food grown locally. "Often ‘locally grown’ food is thought to have a lower environmental impact than food transported over long distances due to carbon emissions from fuel," explains Capper. The phrase "Food Miles" has become a popular buzzword, defined simply as the distance that food travels from its place of origin to its place of final consumption.