The Green Confusion

Articles
December 08, 2009

The Green Confusion

“Green” consumerism is growing; more and more consumers are becoming aware of the impact that our food system has on our climate and petroleum reserves.

“Green” consumerism is growing; more and more consumers are becoming aware of the impact that our food system has on our climate and petroleum reserves. It has been suggested that food-production in industrialized nations is responsible for up to 29 percent of global warming. This staggering figure includes, livestock-related emissions, nitrogen fertilizers, air freight, heated greenhouse production, food wastes, and the post-retail consumer impact. As consumers begin to make and demand change, and governments draft bills and pass laws requiring greater food-production energy efficiency, questions remain by researchers, the food industry and consumer alike about the impact of their decisions.

In a recent presentation by UC Davis’ Sonja Brodt titled, How Does the Food We Eat Impact Climate Change? A Supply Chain Perspective, several of the most relevant and complicated climate change issues were discussed from a holistic “lifecycle” perspective.  The topics included, how fresh local foods compare to organic imported foods, how scale: small, regional, and global compare in impact, processed foods i.e. frozen and canned versus fresh foods, comparison of various livestock products and animal protein versus plant protein products, and pre and post retail impacts. 

Although many of these issues remain unanswered, due to the inherent complexity of the food system’s “lifecycle,” Brodt and the UC Davis team did reach several conclusions.

  • Intensive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers substantially increases the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, but yield, and transport efficiency must also be considered.
  • Regional and local scale production modes seem to be most energy efficient, the use of air freight triples transportation’s gas emission impact.  Local markets like farmers markets vary case by case.
  • Seasonal fresh foods and minimally processed out-of-season foods, as opposed to fossil fuel-heated greenhouse production or long-distance shipments, are likely to save energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Animal-based foods are responsible for an approximate (and staggering) 18% of greenhouse gas emissions; a reduction in consumer portion size, eating less ruminant livestock i.e. cows, and altering some supply chain production methods, can substantially impact greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Consumer transportation, food storage and preparation choices as well as waste reduction at all stages, can potentially make a large difference in emissions.

Clearly the food system is full of complexities, but the UC Davis team highlights the need for standardized protocol that can account for emissions along the entire supply chain to ultimately inform policy. They also suggest the need to combine policy with social marketing to maximally impact the public and retail sectors. The Lempert Report would have to agree with Brodt and team, that energy, climate messages and efforts must be married with other environmental, social and economic impacts in order to affect measurable change.

All of the information used in this article was gathered from, “White Paper” The Low-Carbon Diet Initiative: Reducing Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Food System from a Life Cycle Assessment Perspective. By, Sonja Brodt, Gail Feenstra, Thomas Tomich, UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Inst. September, 2008.

Click here for more information.

“Green” consumerism is growing; more and more consumers are becoming aware of the impact that our food system has on our climate and petroleum reserves. It has been suggested that food-production in industrialized nations is responsible for up to 29 percent of global warming. This staggering figure includes, livestock-related emissions, nitrogen fertilizers, air freight, heated greenhouse production, food wastes, and the post-retail consumer impact. As consumers begin to make and demand change, and governments draft bills and pass laws requiring greater food-production energy efficiency, questions remain by researchers, the food industry and consumer alike about the impact of their decisions.

In a recent presentation by UC Davis’ Sonja Brodt titled, How Does the Food We Eat Impact Climate Change? A Supply Chain Perspective, several of the most relevant and complicated climate change issues were discussed from a holistic “lifecycle” perspective.  The topics included, how fresh local foods compare to organic imported foods, how scale: small, regional, and global compare in impact, processed foods i.e. frozen and canned versus fresh foods, comparison of various livestock products and animal protein versus plant protein products, and pre and post retail impacts. 

Although many of these issues remain unanswered, due to the inherent complexity of the food system’s “lifecycle,” Brodt and the UC Davis team did reach several conclusions.

  • Intensive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers substantially increases the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, but yield, and transport efficiency must also be considered.
  • Regional and local scale production modes seem to be most energy efficient, the use of air freight triples transportation’s gas emission impact.  Local markets like farmers markets vary case by case.
  • Seasonal fresh foods and minimally processed out-of-season foods, as opposed to fossil fuel-heated greenhouse production or long-distance shipments, are likely to save energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Animal-based foods are responsible for an approximate (and staggering) 18% of greenhouse gas emissions; a reduction in consumer portion size, eating less ruminant livestock i.e. cows, and altering some supply chain production methods, can substantially impact greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Consumer transportation, food storage and preparation choices as well as waste reduction at all stages, can potentially make a large difference in emissions.

Clearly the food system is full of complexities, but the UC Davis team highlights the need for standardized protocol that can account for emissions along the entire supply chain to ultimately inform policy. They also suggest the need to combine policy with social marketing to maximally impact the public and retail sectors. The Lempert Report would have to agree with Brodt and team, that energy, climate messages and efforts must be married with other environmental, social and economic impacts in order to affect measurable change.

All of the information used in this article was gathered from, “White Paper” The Low-Carbon Diet Initiative: Reducing Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Food System from a Life Cycle Assessment Perspective. By, Sonja Brodt, Gail Feenstra, Thomas Tomich, UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Inst. September, 2008.

Click here for more information.