Hidden costs of Food

The news cycle provides endless factoids on the nutritional value of food, but recently I've noticed a focus on the sustainability issues of how much of our world’s resources it takes to grow different types of food and the environmental impacts from use of pesticides, antibiotics, and loss of biodiversity. With the global population expected to increase by over a quarter by 2050, and global warming resulting in droughts and rapid changes in growing conditions, arguably the biggest news story of today should be whether we can keep growing enough of what we're feeding ourselves.

Recent news items about the sustainability of meat suggest that we're starting to think about this question. Research published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that on an energy-required-per-calorie assessment, pork, poultry, eggs, and even dairy have far fewer environmental impacts than beef. Co-author Gidon Eshel at Bard College rings up the environmental cost of our steak on a recent 11-minute interview on Science Friday. I found it surprising that 11 times more water (a resource increasingly in short supply) and 28 times more land is needed to raise cattle compared to other meats, and it's largely a function of how much food the cattle have to consume; it's not going to be better for locally-raised cattle compared to industrial farms.

I confess to liking beef and meat in general, but it's important to note that there are steps we can take to improve sustainability without immediately giving up everything we're accustomed to. Clearly we can reduce environmental impacts by switching from beef to other meats and dairy (ice cream!). The take-away here is that what we eat really does make a difference. Tim Benton at the University of Leeds explained to the Guardian that "the biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat." If you want to dive deeper into meat reduction, check out these 5 eating habits from the Slow Meat movement, or the interview last week on Living on Earth with Anna Lappé, author of “Diet for a Hot Planet” and co-founder of the Real Food Media Project.