Quantcast
Food
Vegetables in Whole Foods Market. Masahiro Ihara / CC BY 2.0

Food's Environmental Impact Varies Greatly Between Producers

By Jason Daley

There's no way around it—everything in the grocery store, from nuts and kale to beef and apples, has an environmental impact. Fertilizer causes water pollution, farm fields can encroach on habitat, and a lot of carbon gets released when food is transported from one place to another. But it turns out not every stalk of broccoli or pound of Gouda has the same ecological footprint. A new study of food systems in the journal Science shows the same items sitting next to each other on the shelf can have radically different impacts.


Researchers Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford and Thomas Nemecek of the Swiss agricultural research institute Agroscope pored over 570 studies published in the last 20 years measuring food production across the globe. The food systems in the study represent about 90 percent of all the food produced on Earth, grown on roughly 570 million farms. Poore and Nemecek created a dataset covering 40,000 farms in 119 nations around the world producing 40 agricultural products. They then assessed the ecological impact of each commodity from "farm to fork," looking at its impact on land use, freshwater use, water pollution, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The results show that some crops are much more sustainable than others—for instance, bananas use a lot more land than onions—but also highlight the variability across producers of the same food product. The highest-impact beef has 12 times the emissions and uses 50 times the land of the most sustainably produced beef. Sustainable tomatoes can release almost no greenhouse gases, while high-impact producers can release six kilograms of CO2 per kilogram. High-impact coffee can release 1,000 percent more greenhouse gases than sustainable coffee. The same is true for almost every commodity studied.

Though Poore says that "geography plays a major role in determining all these environmental impacts," there is no one common thread explaining the huge disparities between producers. In rice-growing regions, for instance, some producers may flood their fields annually using long, deep floods that waste water and pollute lakes or rivers. Others may be more precise in their timing, using short shallow floods that have a much smaller impact. And the way rice is processed and whether it is kept as brown rice or milled down to white rice can make one bag 500 times more harmful to the environment than the other.

The fact that so many farms are using environmentally harmful methods is dismaying, but Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group, sees things differently. "Actually, this is a good news story," he said. "What it tells us is we can change our huge environmental footprint by changing the practices farmers use. This is more confirmation that the way we farm and practice production have profoundly different effects."

The study highlights the fact that some difficult but modest changes could have huge impacts. According to the results, 25 percent of the world's food producers are creating 53 percent of the environmental burden. Focusing on that one quarter of farmers could have outsized environmental returns. Finding those solutions, however, will be on a case-by-case basis. "An approach to reduce environmental impacts or enhance productivity that is effective for one producer can be ineffective or create trade-offs for another," Poore said in a statement. "This is a sector where we require many different solutions delivered to many millions of different producers."

Most of the change needs to come at the level of agricultural policy and on the farms themselves. But Poore said consumers can make changes to reduce their impact. Animal products, he pointed out, make up the majority of agriculture's environmental burden, with farmed animal products using 83 percent of the world's farmland and producing 56 to 58 percent of agriculture's emissions. "Then you have the really ridiculous statistics, like high-impact beef creating 25,000 percent more greenhouse gases and using 11,000 percent more land per gram of protein than legumes," Poore said. "That's insane."

If we were all to collectively go vegan, Poore pointed out, it would take about 75 percent of all agricultural land out of production while still producing plenty of calories to feed the world. Since eggs, cheese and burgers are likely here to stay, reducing consumption of animal products by half and reforming the worst producers could still result in massive emissions reductions. "There are ways we could meet the demand for meat in more environmentally friendly ways," Cox said. "There's no way to get away from the fact that eating meat puts a lot of demand on the environment. But we could and should do it better."

Poore may have more insights about the global food system still to come. The analysis looked at studies published up to 2016, but in recent years, there have been about 300 more studies examining the impact of all sorts of agricultural systems that could be rolled into the analysis. That could lead to new policies and approaches. "There's a lot of room for mitigation in the system," he said. "We can target a small number of producers and create a lot of potential for change."

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Politics
Mike Pence at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, MD. Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pence Family Gas Station Failures Cost Taxpayers More Than $20 Million

A failed gas station empire owned by the family of Vice President Mike Pence has left communities in his home state saddled with millions of dollars in ongoing cleanup costs, the AP reported this weekend.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Emilie Chen / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Against All Odds, Mountain Gorilla Numbers Are on the Rise

By Jason Bittel

The news coming out of East Africa's Virunga Mountains these days would have made the late (and legendary) conservationist Dian Fossey very happy. According to the most recent census, the mountain gorillas introduced to the world in Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey's book and the film about her work, have grown their ranks from 480 animals in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Add another couple hundred apes living in scattered habitats to the south, and their population as a whole totals more than 1,000. Believe it or not, this makes the mountain gorilla subspecies the only great apes known to be increasing in number.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
WeWork offers small businesses workspace in a collaborative community. Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

$20 Billion Startup WeWork Goes Vegetarian, Citing Environmental Concerns

Growing office-space startup WeWork is introducing a new flavor of corporate sustainability with its announcement Thursday that the entire company is going vegetarian, CNN Tech reported Friday.

The company of around 6,000 will no longer serve meat at events or reimburse employees for pork, red meat or poultry.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Greenpeace activists unfurled two large banners in the high bell tower of Kallio church in Helsinki, Finland on Monday. Greenpeace

'Warm Our Hearts Not Our Planet': Greenpeace Demands Climate Action From Trump and Putin

By Jessica Corbett

As U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin came together in Helsinki, Finland on Monday for a closely watched summit, Greenpeace activists partnered with a local parish to unfurl two massive banners on the Kallio church's bell tower to call on the leaders to "warm our hearts not our planet."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
Many roofs were torn off when high winds from Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. U.S. Air Force photo by A1C Nicholas Dutton

Hurricane Maria Aftermath: FEMA Admits to Deadly Mistakes in Puerto Rico

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was sorely unprepared to handle Hurricane Maria and the subsequent crisis in Puerto Rico, the agency admitted in an internal performance assessment memo released last week.

FEMA's after-action report details how the agency's warehouse on the island was nearly empty due to relief efforts from Hurricane Irma when Maria made landfall last September, with no cots or tarps and little food and water.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks to staff at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters on July 11 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

3 Ways Andrew Wheeler Can Help Restore the EPA’s Dignity and Mission

By Jeff Turrentine

Plenty has been written in the past week about Andrew Wheeler, who has taken over as interim U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator after Scott Pruitt's abrupt yet way overdue resignation. (Some of us were even writing about Wheeler months ago!)

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Bob Berg / Getty Images

How Summer and Diet Damage Your DNA, and What You Can Do

By Adam Barsouk

Today, your body will accumulate quadrillions of new injuries in your DNA. The constant onslaught of many forms of damage, some of which permanently mutates your genes, could initiate cancer and prove fatal. Yet all is not doomed: The lives we lead determine how well our cells can handle this daily molecular erosion.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme / Maxime Aliaga

300+ Mammal Species Could Still Be Discovered, Scientists Say

By Sara Novak

You can't protect an animal that you don't know exists. Tapanuli orangutans, for example, are found only in the Tapanuli region of Sumatra; they were only identified as a species last year, when scientists found them to be genetically different from other Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. With just 800 left, this newly discovered species is the most critically endangered ape.

It's hard to believe that with only seven great ape species on the planet—Tapanuli, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos—a species could have gone undiscovered until 2017. But, in fact, new research shows that many mammals still fly under the radar.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!