Environmental footprint calculators have one big drawback to talk about

Are you one of the growing number of people who seek to minimize environmental damage by producing the food you eat? If so, you can use the general “environmental footprint” method to decide what to buy.

Environmental footprints measure the environmental damage caused by the product throughout its service life. As for food, this includes the impact of growing crops and livestock, as well as producing essential materials such as fertilizers. This may also include packaging and transportation.

But, unfortunately, the environment often does not tell the full story. When consumers switch to food that is considered more environmentally friendly, its production expands at the expense of other products. This has implications that do not take into account the environment.

Environmental footprint calculators can promise to help consumers lead a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. But in reality, they can encourage choices that do not benefit – or even harm – the environment.

Footprint calculators can encourage choices that don’t necessarily benefit the environment.
Neil Hall / EPA

A problematic assumption

We are experts in assessing the effectiveness of climate change mitigation for agricultural systems. We regularly provide political advice to governments, United Nations bodies and other organizations.

When developing environmental footprint calculators are guided internationally standardization organizations and politicians, including European Union. The tool is usually found on the websites of environmental groups, government agencies, companies and other organizations.

Calculators focus on consumer choice by assessing the impact of current production on the environment. But this is a problem.

It is assumed that the product figures calculated today remain unchanged as production increases or decreases, but this is often not true. When demand for a product changes, it affects nature. This may mean that more farmland is required, or river water is used to irrigate different crops.

Below we look at three ways how the environment can give a false picture of the true impact of a product.

1. Land use

Agriculture makes a large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions – primarily due to animal belching, but also the production and use of synthetic fertilizers.

Organic farming can help reduce emissions from agriculture, primarily because it does not use synthetic fertilizers. But some studies suggest that switching to organic farming could also worsen greenhouse gas emissions.

a tractor plows a field
Some studies suggest that switching to organic farming may also worsen greenhouse gas emissions.

One study in England and Wales considered what would happen if all food production was converted to organic. It has been found that global greenhouse gas emissions from food production may increase about 60%.

This is because organic systems give less yields, which means that abroad will need more crop and livestock to cover the deficit. The creation of this agricultural land would mean the clearing of vegetation, which when decomposed releases carbon dioxide.

And when meadows turn into veneration, the soil’s organic carbon is also lost. Improved carbon storage in soil from organic farming compensates for only a small portion of higher emissions abroad.

When considering the consequences of switching from one food to another, the type of agricultural land is also important.

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About 325 million hectares of land are accustomed to Australia to raise cattle for the production of red meat. This is the land often cannot be used for growing crops because it is too dry, steep, vegetable or rocky.

If consumers switch from red meat to a plant-based diet, they will need more land suitable for growing crops in Australia or abroad to produce alternative proteins such as legumes or meat of plant origin.

In Australia, existing arable land is already used to supply crops to domestic and global markets. Thus, the new land would have to be made suitable for crops, either by grazing or deforestation. Alternatively, crop production can be increased through the use of more fertilizers or other materials.

Emissions associated with these shifts are not included in the carbon footprint of plant-based protein production.

cows grazing in the field
About 325 million acres of land in Australia is used to raise cattle for meat.
Rick Rycroft / AP

2. Water

This is normal Presumably that choosing a product with less water footprint will increase the amount of water in rivers and lakes that replenishes the environment. However, in Australia, policies and markets determine how water is used.

Water for irrigation can be traded between users. If a water-intensive crop such as rice is no longer grown, the farmer will almost always either use the water to grow another crop or trade it with another farmer. In this case, the water does not return to the environment.

Similarly, falling red meat production may not necessarily increase the amount of water for the environment.

Farmers whose land is adjacent to a river or other body of water allowed to take water for drinking animals. Fewer livestock will leave more water in the rivers, however research in Australia suggests that this water will be extracted for domestic use, especially in dry years.

3. Goods made together

Many agricultural products are produced in conjunction with others. For example, a cow slaughtered for red meat will also produce skin, meat meal and fat. Similarly, a sheep can produce wool when alive, and then other products at slaughter.

So if consumers have given up red meat because of the high carbon footprint, the by-products also need to be replaced – and this will have an impact on the environment.

If, for example, synthetic materials replace wool or leather, the demand for oil is likely to increase. Or if wool is replaced by biologically based products such as cotton or hemp, the demand for sown land will increase.

a bunch of handbags
The shift from leather to synthetic materials is likely to increase demand for oil.

Increasing milk production per cow – and thus keeping fewer cows – was seen as a way to reduce livestock emissions. But research suggests that this may not bring the expected result.

Fewer cows would result in fewer calves used to produce veal. The study found that less veal would require more red meat to be produced elsewhere, meaning no overall reduction in emissions.

It is realistic to assume that red meat will be needed more. While per capita beef consumption is declining in some western countriesglobal demand for beef is projected to grow to 2030 as wealth grows in developing countries and the world’s population grows.

To a healthier planet

We and other experts are increasingly trying raise awareness with simplified the nature of ecological footprints.

It is important to recognize the limitations of current methods and create tools that fully assess the implications of consumer decisions.

The development of these tools will ENCOURAGINGdue to the large amount of uncertainty, and will require significant investment in research.

But it will lead to better environmental policies, fewer unintended consequences and a healthier planet.

Read more:
Don’t you drink milk? Here’s how to get enough calcium and other nutrients Environmental footprint calculators have one big drawback to talk about

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