Sunday, April 24, 2011

Agriculture, Food Production Among Worst Environmental Offenders, Report Finds

An new article in Science Daily states that,

"a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme observes that growing and producing food make agriculture and food consumption among the most important drivers of environmental pressures, including climate change and habitat loss."

To learn more about the United Nations Environment Programme report, read: Agriculture, food production among worst environmental offenders, report finds.

But first, here are a few comments related to both the report and your Activity 2: In analyzing your carbon footprints, most of you stated that food consumption made up the largest portion of your total carbon footprints. Many of you also expressed being perplexed, wondering how daily eating can have such immense impacts, especially given that your diets are not even close to glutenous.

Perhaps the reason why this doesn't seem to make sense is that you are considering the impacts of your individual food consumption patterns, rather than how your individual food consumption patterns are themselves impacted by industrial agricultural production practices. It is not necessarily that you are eating so much, but that the food you are eating is energetically expensive- it takes a lot of energy to grow/produce and possibly package and ship it.

Furthermore, factors (such as how much packaging is used on the food items you purchase, and how far your food is shipped before it hits your market of choice) are determined by food market management decisions, which are partially the result of widespread industrial practices, which are themselves the result of economic competition and other factors, etc. etc. All of this is normalized at the societal level. You also contribute to societal norms through your behaviors, such as those related to spending (purchasing power), voting, and consumption. We are all role models (for instance, since the 1990s, demand for organic foods has increased dramatically, with the result that now you can even buy "organic" at Walmart). Some of you pointed this out.

Then there are also simple, unalterable bio-physical facts that determine how much energy is consumed in food production. For instance, many of you noted that eating meat substantially increased your carbon footprints. Some of you wondered why. A major reason (but by no means the only reason) why beef is especially "expensive" in terms of energy use is simply because the amount of calories cows need to survive is much greater than the amount of calories you get from eating them. They simply use up a lot of the energy to sustain their bio-physical Life processes. Thus, a lot more grains must be grown to feed them than would be necessary to feed you. While this may be unalterable, farm management practices, such as the use of fertilizer (made from natural gas and other energy sources) to stimulate the growth of plants that are fed to cows, can be more flexible. The energy costs of running farms is also variable. Like the Miller family you read about, many farms could reduce their energy costs through investment in energy efficiency.

Lastly, according to the article, the new science report states that,

"impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth, increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."

However, I would disagree with the statement that nothing can be done. While we all need to eat, most of you pointed out many ways that we can eat more sustainably in order to decrease our local and global environmental impacts.

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