Despite spending seven years writing about the technical advances in our modern-day food industry, I'm sometimes still guilty of letting sensationalized criticism of our nation's food production get to me. As I drive past the farmers market in my town in a hurry to get to the chain grocery store, I sometimes wonder if I am personally contributing to the downfall of our country's sustainability efforts.
But the reality of the situation is that experts are predicting a world population of 9.5 billion by 2050—meaning that our global food production will have to double. This makes efficiency crucial. It seems to me that instead of acknowledging that we are going to have to seriously step up the intensity and efficiency of our food production, many "activists" are too busy producing sensationalized documentaries about the evils of an industrialized food system. Pictures of happy cows, grazing in huge, lush pastures are presented as ideals. Unfortunately, it seems as though what many are not realizing is that without technology, come 2050, we will starve. Correction: I won't starve. You probably won't starve either. It is developing countries with exploding populations and inadequate means of feeding these populations that will struggle. Incidentally, these are not the countries preaching about the evils of modern food production.
Don't get me wrong—I'm not proposing we desecrate the earth in order to produce as much food as possible. All food production has an environmental impact, and it is our responsibility to find systems that produce the largest quantity of healthy food, at the lowest cost to our environment. What I'm suggesting is that perhaps the ideals force fed to us by the media are not necessarily the path to a better world. Happy organic cows in lush pastures don't mean much when they come at the expense of hungry children.
I recently came across a report titled, "Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production¹," which suggests (and backs up with proof) that the most commonly heard discussions relating to the environmental impact of food animal production and transport systems are riddled with misconceptions.
For example, the report points out that most food industry criticism fails to express environmental impact per unit of food, rather than per animal. So the question should not be "how much waste is produced per cow?" but instead, "how much waste is produced per gallon of milk?" According to the report, while one organic cow might cause less environmental damage than one conventional cow, because it takes more organic cows to produce the same amount of milk produced by one conventional cow, organic cows actually cause more environmental damage per gallon of milk produced. And, since it is the gallons of milk consumers are buying, not the cows, environmental impact should be measured per unit of product.
Another example cited has to do with the difference between buying locally, and buying products that are shipped to grocery stores from out of state. I found this observation particularly interesting considering all the hype the "locavore" movement has garnered lately. While eggs at a local farmers market may have only travelled 25 miles to get there, versus the eggs at the grocery store which travelled 500 miles, the truck transporting the grocery store eggs held thousands more dozen-sized containers of eggs than the small vehicle en route to the farmers market. If you measure miles PER dozen eggs, the tractor-trailer is far more efficient, and has less of an impact on the environment per dozen eggs.
In the end, it comes down to how the individual reporting the facts chooses to measure them. Certainly there is biased reporting from both sides, and the aforementioned study is no exception. However, it does seem that the stories most commonly thrust into the public eye are those attempting to "lift the veil" on our food system and show consumers something they clearly won't be happy seeing. Reports based on slanted information only serve to underscore the tremendous efficiency achieved by today's food production and transportation systems. In many cases, I think today's activists need to double-check their work.
What do you think? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
J. L. Capper, Department of Animal Sciences, Washington State University, R. A. Cady, Elanco Animal Health, and D. E. Bauman, Department of Animal Science, Cornell University