It is a strange age when it seems like one requires a trip to the library, a day of research and an existential crisis just to understand the labels on a carton of eggs at the supermarket. There has been a push in recent times to increase the amount of labeling on our food products and give consumers a greater level of transparency on the food they eat.
Organic, free range, non-GMO, fair trade, grass-fed, bovine growth hormone free, cage-free, ultra-pasteurized, etc. are all labels we are bombarded by that tend to be more provocative than informative. What do any of these mean? Do any of these labels refer to a better product for ourselves or the environment?
More often than not, these labels are empty marketing schemes. Some egg cartons have a hormone-free label, which sounds ideal after hearing stories about recombinant bovine growth hormone found in milk. However, the label “hormone-free” means little to nothing, as putting hormones in poultry feed is illegal in the United States. The promise of free-range chicken is equally dubious, as all it requires is access to a small, fenced yard for two of the eight weeks of their life.
The most prevalent and provocative of supermarket labels has to be that of “organic.” The organic movement has provided benefits to the health of the environment by decreasing the amount of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers used.
It is also true that organic foods have been proven to contain far fewer pesticide and herbicide residues than their conventional counterparts, and there is a growing body of evidence on the negative long-term effects of trace amounts of agricultural chemicals on the human body.
Recent studies have also proven that organic produce has higher levels of vitamins and beneficial secondary compounds compared to conventional produce. Another food movement, which has gained a lot of traction in recent years, is eating local. There are significant societal benefits to buying and eating locally, as it builds community cohesion and keeps money in the local economy by giving more profits to local producers.
However, when looking at the carbon cost of production, it is unclear whether or not eating local and organic food is better for the environment.
Weed control on organic farms is accomplished through additional irrigation and tilling, which are both energy-intensive tasks; additionally, a great deal of fuel is spent trucking bulky loads of compost to the farm instead of more compact synthetic fertilizer. The energy-intensive processes required to grow food organically usually end up negating any energy savings made through using natural fertilizer.
As for eating locally, the biggest environmental boon of the movement is said to be the reduction in carbon emissions from transport. However, of the 8 tons of carbon dioxide emitted to feed the average American family per year, transportation of food from producer to retailer accounts for only 4 percent of these emissions, while growing and harvesting the food makes up 83 percent!
So it may be more productive from a carbon-emissions standpoint to buy food that was grown energy-efficiently somewhere far away than buying food grown in a local, heated greenhouse.
What is to be done? The simplest and most impactful change one can make to reduce the ecological cost of food is to cut down on food waste. Food waste is the second-largest source of municipal waste in the United States (the first being paper).
Forty percent of the food grown in America, or around 34 million tons of food — which equals a quarter of the nation’s total freshwater consumption — is thrown out every year without being used.
Although much food waste happens at the production and retail end of the chain, due to losses during harvest, transport or produce deemed not aesthetically pleasing enough to make it to the supermarket; nearly half of total food waste happens in our homes.
Eating locally and buying organic are both viable options for someone trying to make a difference; however, a greater impact can be made by reducing food waste.