Tag Archives: food

Meat and sustainability

Watchful | Rising Damp

Meat can be a part of a sustainable lifestyle.

There are two important issues when it comes to sustainable meat production:

  1.  Minimise the use of land that can be used to grow food crops directly for humans. It’s the extra inputs and processing required for meat production and the inefficient use of land that makes meat environmentally unfriendly.
  2. Minimise greenhouse gas emissions. Some kinds of meat production generate higher greenhouse gas emissions than others.

With that in mind, here are seven tips on how to be kind to the planet without missing out on meat!

1. Eat less meat

Toasted tomato, avocado, cucumber & hummus sandwich | SweetOnVeg

The environmental impact of meat is generally higher than for other food sources. Some startling facts:

  • Half of the world’s crops are grown to feed animals
  • The meat industry contributes about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • 30% of the all land and 8% of the water we use is devoted to raising livestock
  • Producing 1 kilogram of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kilogram of grain protein
  • For every kilogram of meat protein that is produced, 6 kilograms of plant protein is fed to livestock
  • The US livestock population consumes seven times more grain than the human population. That’s enough grain to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet
  • The average American eats twice the recommended daily allowance of protein

2. Avoid beef and lamb

Cow Butt | St0rmz

Ruminants, including cattle, sheep, goats and camels produce methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Each cow produces much more greenhouse gas emissions than a car. In New Zealand, a small country that gets most of its electricity from hydro-power, about half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from sheep and cattle.

3. Choose grass-fed beef

Cow on the hilltop | BinaryApe

If you aren’t ready to give up beef, choose grass-fed beef.

Animal welfare is an obvious reason for choosing grass-fed beef over feedlot beef. I can’t read a cows mind, but it’s hard to imagine that a cow would choose to spend the last several months of its short life in an overcrowded feedlot being fed food that makes it sick and would eventually kill it – if the unfortunate beast lived long enough! That’s what happens in a feedlot.

Aside from the ethical issues, grass-fed beef is likely to come from marginal land that isn’t suitable for cropping. Providing the land is not over-grazed, this is more sustainable than keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them food that should be produced for people – not livestock.

Critics make the valid point that marginal land is not productive enough to meet our insatiable demand for beef. That’s  true. We eat too much beef! If we want to live sustainably, we need to eat less. Period.

4. Choose organic or biodynamic

Organic Sausage Stand | ajleon

The overall environmental impact of organic or biodynamic and free range meat is generally lower than for conventionally produced meat. There are benefits in relation to carbon emissions, soil erosion, biodiversity and air and water pollution.

Organic food is more expensive and organic production systems seem to produce less food per hectare than conventional systems. This has led to some concern that organic food can’t feed the Earth’s growing population. Nobody really knows.

However, a major reason that organic food is more expensive is because the ‘real’ cost of production is incorporated into the price. In conventional systems, food is cheaper, but someone else is paying for the environmental impact. ‘Someone else’ may include taxpayers, people living downstream or future generations.

To put this in economic jargon, in organic systems, many production costs are ‘internalised’, whereas in conventional systems, many costs are ‘externalised’. If we want our economic system to work better, we need to make the polluter pay. That is, we need to correct a ‘market failure’ and ‘internalise the negative externalities’.

5. Choose chicken, turkey or pork for lower greenhouse gas emissions

Angry chicken | Stewart Black

Chicken has the lowest emissions of conventional meats. Turkey and pork also have relatively low emissions.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Comparison of total greenhouse gas emissions from alternative protein sources: EWG Meat Eaters Guide.

6. Choose free range pork and poultry

The main reason we choose free range meat is because of concerns about animal welfare.

Most pigs are raised in factory conditions and never see the sun until they are sent for slaughter. On some farms in Australia - and in other countries – female breeding pigs (sows) are confined to metal stalls that are so small the animal can’t turn around. When the piglets are born, their teeth are clipped, tails cut off and they are castrated without pain relief. The young are removed before 4 weeks of age and the sow is impregnated again.

It’s a similar story for battery hens.  In some countries, there is little regulation around what ‘free range’ actually means. Fortunately, when it comes to chickens, there’s an easy way to tell if the birds are being looked after… If there are too many chickens in a given space, chickens peck each other to death. To manage overcrowding, some free range farmers de-beak their birds. Whether you are buying meat or eggs, find out if your ‘free range’ provider de-beaks their birds. If they do, the pens are overcrowded. Buy from someone else.

7. Choose wild-caught game meats

Deer in the Woods | kretyen

Free-living game can provide a sustainable source of meat.

People have created environmental conditions that have led to a boom in the population of some native species. For example, the population of deer have increased because we’ve killed off their predators. Kangaroos in Australia have benefited from the increased supply of grass and grain on land cleared for agriculture. Sustainable harvesting of wild game can supply us with meat and reduce ‘total grazing pressure’. Reducing grazing pressure has the added benefit of making conventional meat production more efficient.

Providing the method of hunting is right for each species, hunting game can also be good from an animal welfare viewpoint. Sometimes these species suffer from starvation due to overpopulation, especially over winter or due to drought. Also, unlike farm animals, game live natural lives.

And what is more, hunting feral animals can provide food and help reduce the impact they have on the environment. In Australia, culling wild feral camels has been proposed as a method for reducing their impact on the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If we can find a way to get camels out of the outback and on to dinner plates we’ll be helping the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accessing a new, sustainable source of meat. A win-win-win!

And a bonus tip!

8. Roadkill…

Kangaroo Sign | Bloody Nick

Well. It’s not my thing, but I’ve met a ‘vegetarian’ who wouldn’t say no to fresh roadkill. Enough said.

Creative Commons Licensephoto credits: Rising Damp, SweetOnVegSt0rmz, BinaryApe, Ajleon, Stewart Black, EWG, USDAgov, Kretyen, Bloody Nick

The trouble with biodiesel

Walmart’s Grease Fuel Trucks

Biodiesel is often promoted as a clean, green, renewable substitute for regular diesel or petrol. Unfortunately, the green credentials of biodiesel aren’t much better than for ethanol.

The difference between biodiesel and ethanol
Biodiesel and ethanol are both ‘biofuels‘. However, biodiesel and ethanol are not the same thing. Ethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting sugars. Biodiesel is made from plant oils and animal fats that have been chemically treated with a small amount of methanol.

The problem with biodiesel (and ethanol) is that it is impossible to produce very large amounts of biodiesel without clearing very large amounts of land or converting land used for food production into land used for fuel production. When biodiesel is made from plants grown specifically to produce fuel (and most is), biodiesel is likely to drive up food prices and incur all the attendant problems that go along with land clearing for agriculture – habitat destruction, soil erosion, water quality decline, carbon emissions, etc. Bummer.

On the plus side, biodiesel generates lower emissions of some air pollutants, including hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and possibly nitrous oxides and particulate matter. Also, we can produce small quantities of biodiesel using waste cooking oil and waste fat from meat production (tallow). And one day soon it may also be possible to produce large quantities of biodiesel on small amounts of land using algae fed from sewage, but as with cellulosic ethanol, the technology for mass production of algae oil is still being developed.

P3212577 | joyosity

When biodiesel is made from used cooking oil or tallow, overall greenhouse gas emissions are greatly reduced compared to diesel or petrol. However, less than 1% of biodiesel is made this way. Most biodiesel is produced from soybean, sunflower and rapeseed (canola) oil. Other food plant sources include castor beans, coconuts and oil palm – the same plant often blamed for the destruction of orang-utan habitat. When biodiesel is made from crops the overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is relatively low and may actually be higher than regular diesel.

So, whether or not you should switch to biodiesel depends on the source of the oil. If the oil comes from old cooking oil or tallow you’ll be reducing your greenhouse gas emissions by up to ninety percent. Fantastic!

However, if your oil comes from sunflower or canola the greenhouse gas reductions are much less. What is worse, you might also be contributing to pushing up food prices and encouraging conversion of land from forest to cropping. That’s bad news for people, forests, orang-utans and carbon emissions. For example, CSIRO in Australia found that biodiesel produced using palm oil grown on cleared forest will produce emissions that are between 8 and 21 times greater than for regular diesel. Ouch!

Palm oil protest | Greenpeace Finland

photo credits: Walmart StoresjoyosityGreenpeace Finland

The trouble with ethanol


What is ethanol?

Ethanol is an alcohol fuel usually made by fermenting sugar or starch in wheat, corn, sugar beet, sugar cane and other crops. Yeasts feed on the sugars, creating ethanol and carbon dioxide. The ethanol is then concentrated by distillation. Ethanol is seen by many as a replacement for oil and other fossil fuels because it is a renewable energy supply that can reduce reliance on oil imports.

The (purported) benefits of ethanol

  1. Lower transport-related carbon emissions: When crops are harvested and ethanol is burned in an engine, CO2 is released into the atmosphere – just as it is when oil and other fossil fuels are burned. The difference with ethanol is that as new crops grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and the overall concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stays the same. When fossil fuels are burned, the CO2 stays in the atmosphere and the concentration of CO2 continually increases, contributing to global warming.
  2. Energy security: Because crops for ethanol can be grown over and over, ethanol has the potential to reduce dependence on oil imports and replace dwindling oil reserves.

Unfortunately, there are some serious drawbacks with ethanol. Some of these are listed below.

10 reasons why ethanol fuel is bad for you and the environment

  1. Lower fuel efficiency: Ethanol has less energy than gasoline. At higher blend levels (including E85) fuel efficiency will be noticeably lower than for gasoline.
  2. Agricultural subsidies: Although the price at the pump may seem favourable compared to gasoline, this is partly due to incentives and subsidies paid by governments to farmers, especially in the US and Europe. Not only does this mean that ethanol is effectively subsidised by taxation, the subsidies distort markets and hurt farmers in the third world who can’t compete on the world market.
  3. Deforestation and habitat destruction: Increasing demand for ethanol crops increases demand for agricultural land. Clearing forests to make more cropland destroys habitat and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
  4. Higher food prices: The land needed to make enough fuel for one car could be used to feed seven people. Ethanol producers buy grain in the same global markets that supply grain for food. Increasing the demand for agricultural land and grain increases the price of food worldwide, and this has a disproportional impact on the poorest people in society.
  5. Increased use of pesticides: As with most modern farming systems, farmers that grow crops for ethanol rely on pesticides that can contaminate soil, water and air.
  6. Increased use of artificial fertilisers: To increase yields, farmers use artificial fertilisers made from non-renewable petroleum, natural gas and phosphate minerals.
  7. Soil erosion and declining water quality: Land clearing and cultivation exposes soil to wind and water erosion. Soil, fertilisers and pesticides are washed into waterways where they can affect ecosystems and contaminate water used for drinking, crops and stock.
  8. Greenhouse gas emissions: As well as emissions from land clearing and the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, there are also emissions from farm machinery. The distilling process also uses a lot of energy. At present much of the energy to distil ethanol comes from coal-fired power stations. The overall reduction in greenhouse gases from using ethanol is relatively small and might sometimes be negative.
  9. Ethanol can only be a small part of the solution: It takes about ten acres of corn to supply enough fuel for one car. It would take the whole land area of the United States to make enough ethanol to fuel all cars in America today.
  10. Increased water use: Irrigation to grow crops comes from groundwater or streams and this adds to the overall environmental and social impact of ethanol by reducing water available to ecosystems, food farmers and town drinking water supplies.

So the catch is that ethanol isn’t very good at lowering carbon emissions or improving energy security – but it does cause a lot of problems. In some ways, mining of oil has been replaced with mining of soil and water. And the risk of oil spills has been replaced by the risk of denuded soils, declining water quality and soil fertility. It’s no surprise that ethanol from grains has been called “subsidized food burning”.

Fortunately, it might not be all bad news for ethanol. In this post, we only looked at ethanol from grain and sugar. It might soon be possible to efficiently manufacture ‘cellulosic’ ethanol made from crop residues, wood chips and fast-growing energy crops (like switch grass). If it becomes viable, cellulosic ethanol looks like it might be much more sustainable than ethanol from grain and sugar crops.

Another ‘renewable’ liquid fuel source gaining popularity is biodiesel . Biodiesel is a replacement for normal diesel fuel that is made from vegetable oils or animal fats, including used fats from cooking.

We’ll take a look at both cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel in future posts…

UPDATE: New post – The trouble with biodiesel

Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: swanksalot

The long and short of food miles

Container Ship

I like the ‘food miles’ concept. It’s a great way to make sure you’re eating fresh, healthy food that supports farms and other businesses in your country or local region.

What are ‘food miles’ and why do they matter?

Food miles are a measure of the distance between where foods are produced and where they are consumed. In general, the lower the food miles, the lower the amount of energy required to get the food to your plate, and the lower the emissions and environmental impacts associated with freight. This is especially true for any food that is shipped by air.

The distance our food travels can be surprising. In an Australian study, a basket of 29 food items racked up a total of more than 43,000 food miles (70,000 kilometres) – almost two trips around the world.

How can we reduce our food miles?

This is easy. Read the labels and avoid imported foodstuffs. Also, choose food that is in season in your country or (even better) your local area. To make it even easier, buy food from local farmer’s markets.

What else do we need to think about?

Food miles are not always the best guide to sustainability. More important are the embodied resources, energy and emissions that we mentioned in our post about ‘green’ car choices. This concept is equally important in choices about food. If you think about the whole lifecycle of the food you buy, not just food miles, you’ll be reducing the size of your ecological footprint and living more sustainably.

Sometimes food miles don’t tell us which foods are kindest to the environment. Here are some examples…

If you live in the UK, lamb, dairy products, kiwi fruit and apples produced in New Zealand may be better for the environment that the same products produced locally or in other parts of Europe. This is because much of New Zealand’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power, so parts of the production process produce relatively low emissions. Also, because of the soils and climate, New Zealand pastures are more productive and lambs do not need to be housed over winter, further reducing emissions from New Zealand lamb.

If you live in Australia or the USA, rice growing in your country may be less sustainable than rice growing in Asia. Rice grown in dry climates like Australia – the driest inhabited continent on Earth – relies on irrigation, reducing precious water available to other users and the environment. Australian and US rice growing is mechanised and it requires much more fertiliser and energy to grow. In much of Asia rainfall and climate are better suited to rice growing, and more human labour is used in production and harvest.

Other things to consider…

Another consideration is the mode of transport. Food that is shipped by air will always have high carbon emissions and should be avoided. A tonne of cargo shipped by sea generates about 20 grams of CO2 per kilometre, compared to 500 grams for cargo shipped by air.

In general the sustainability focus of food miles is the environment and in particular reducing carbon emissions. However, there are three aspects to sustainability – the environment, society and the economy. We live in a global economy. Changing our food-buying habits also affects societies and economies, including those in the third world, many of which are dependent on food exports.

In future posts we’ll take a look at other important issues relating to food sustainability, including organic and biodynamic produce, the impact of meat, and the problem of excessive packaging.

Some Do’s and Don’ts of sustainable food choices

  • DO: choose locally grown (and processed) food – but only if the production process is low-impact.
  • DO: buy food at local farmer’s markets – but don’t drive ‘miles’ out of your way to get to one.
  • DO: choose food that is in season. A good guide is price. When good quality fruits or vegetables are cheapest they are usually in season, more nutritious, and more environmentally friendly – a win-win-win.
  • DO: grow food at home, but be mindful of the amount of water, pesticide and fertiliser you use – or your food may be less sustainable than food in a grocery store.
  • DO: choose foods that are produced using low-input, low-impact methods – this might require some research.
  • DON’T: ever choose food that is shipped by air.
  • DON’T: choose fruits or vegetables grown in heated greenhouses.
  • DON’T: waste food. If you do you aren’t just wasting food, you’re also squandering all the resources and energy that went into producing and delivering the food to you.

Creative Commons License photo credit: jdnx