The Foodprint of Broccoli

best eaten raw to prevent
cancer and save the climate

Not only Cassandra’s heirs are predicting serious disaster if mankind’s consuming power keeps growing the way it does. It is commonplace that this planet we call ours cannot keep up with the rate we are using her resources. The 21th century consumer simply uses more of the natural resources than can be replenished in time for the next generation.

Everything we do takes energy and most of that energy is provided by fossil fuels. I want to focus on one aspect that is at the core of our lives: food. In the last decades, a lot of studies have been conducted about the carbon footprint of our foodstuffs: the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted for the production, transportation, storage and preparation of one kilogram of food. A common misunderstanding is that shipping would constitute the majority of the carbon footprint, leading to the concept of “Food Miles”. As Budiansky pointed out in an opinion piece he wrote in the New York Times September 2010, the real energy guzzling takes place within households. Fridges, food processors, and driving to the supermarkt contribute more to the negative carbon balance of our daily food than storage, transportation and production (perhaps with the exception of greenhouse vegetables and tropical fruits shipped in dedicated cargo planes).

In the US, a 2008 study by researchers Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found that the final transport of food from producer to market (the ‘food miles’) accounts for only 4 per cent of the total emissions from food- But overall, this estimate increased to 11 per cent of total food-related emissions when the researchers accounted for transport

The exact numbers don’t matter much to turn people into conscious consumers. What does matter is their awareness of unsustainability and more importantly, the fact that unsustainability is not cool. What could such energy awareness look like? The average consumer will of course choose the product with the smaller footprint – given all other factors like quality, appearance, price, associations are the same. The reason is easy to understand: The smaller footprint adds value to the product, namely the infinitesimal but existing value of moral superiority of that product over the other one. I think we have to multiply this infinitesimal factor through public communication and massive awareness creation that will be strong enough to turn it into a financial incentive (because people who buy greenhouse fruits will be excluded from rotaries, for example).

Once the public awareness takes off, making energy calculations will be more respected and taken seriously. How much fossil fuel was burned to create (and transport) the fertilizer? What about the irrigation system? And how far away is the broccoli farm? What kind of insecticides were used? What about the alternative of low-pillage agriculture? What about the nitrogen balance? When we buy it and drive home with our groceries, how much diesel oil are we burning per kg of broccoli? What is the overall energy use and toxic output resulting from the production of this broccoli coral?

It is fun to make these kind of calculations and high school kids should be encouraged to do so. They will grow environmentally conscious in the process.

What is needed is a comprehensive, honest, and transparent list of greenhouse gas and toxic emissions in the overall process of producing our foodstuffs and getting them on our plates and palates.


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