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Quarter of Your Carbon Footprint and a Quarter Pounder

November 18, 2009 1 comment

*** This blog has moved. Please come and read new posts on our updated site, The Natural Strategy Blog.

I just finished reading a fascinating NY Times article entitled, “To Cut Global Warming, Swedes Study Their Plates”. The story discussed how Sweden is encouraging their food producers to add carbon dioxide emissions information to food labels. From the complex logistics of managing this type of program to the incredible possibilities that will come from exposing the public to the true cost of its food, carbon footprint labels on food represent the cutting edge of sustainability. Despite inevitable challenges, this idea seems so simple and full of promise that I cannot stop thinking about how it could be developed in the US.

Last year, the Nutrition Department at Sweden’s National Food Administration was asked to create new guidelines that encompass reducing climate change as well as maintaining human health. Earlier research suggested that up to 25% of an individual’s carbon footprint is associated with their diet. This is an incredible number! It means that in addition to reducing my driving and flying, what I choose to bring into my kitchen affects my carbon emissions. That seeking alternative sources of energy for my home and what I decide to order when eating out are both very important ways in which I can help combat global warming. Providing consumers with more information will enable them to be better stewards to our natural world. What a wonderful step in the right direction.

I see several benefits, as well as some challenges, with including carbon emission counts alongside food in restaurants and at grocery stores. Let me start with two of the potential difficulties.

First of all, who is going to do the measuring and what standards will they follow? In Sweden, emissions labeling is only recommended and each producer is asked to conduct their own research. The government has funded general studies on staple products like rice, fish, carrots, chicken, and tomatoes, but because there are multiple factors, including soil conditions, fertilize use, degree of processing, packaging material, and length transportation, companies such as Max, Sweden’s local answer to McDonald’s, are working to define the footprints of their specific menu items. The nation’s largest food co-op, Lantmannen, which is owned by 40,000 Swedish farmers, is also conducting CO2 emission audits for many of its products and placing its findings in supermarkets across the country. The guidelines put forth by Sweden’s National Food Administration are now under review by other European Union (EU) countries. It will be interesting to see where the process goes from here. I am very encouraged that everything is already underway and am confident that the EU program could act as a model for how to roll out CO2 emission labels for food in America.

Secondly, how are consumers going to understand what the numbers mean? When nutritional labels were introduced across the US in 1994, there was a steep learning curve. Even though much of the population already knew the terms being used, such as fat, protein, sodium, and carbohydrates, most of us did not fully understand how much fiber was enough and how much sugar was considered too much. It has taken both public and private educational campaigns to bring us up to speed on why we should be reading nutritional labels. We have to expect the same ramp up time when emissions information is added to a label already busy with nutritional analysis. For most of the US, the entire idea of carbon emissions, what exactly they mean, how many ounces of CO2 per pound is too much, and what are reasonable alternatives to my burger must be answered. The question is who will be the teacher?

Despite these organizational hurdles, I believe CO2 labels will become ubiquitous over the next few years. The idea is similar in many ways to what Climate Counts has been doing. They are one of my favorite organizations because they are empowering consumers to make purchasing decisions based on how companies are handling their climate change responsibilities. Climate Counts ranks businesses in a variety of sectors against a score card that evaluates what the company is doing to reduce its role in climate change.

Carbon emission labels for food are more specific because they look at individual items rather than an entire organization. I think this is appropriate for food and may be a way for both consumers and producers to ease into a new paradigm where food takes on the important role of saving the Earth. Imagine going into a restaurant and ordering a pizza made with local goat cheese and organic vegetables. It would have a low CO2 count and most likely a slightly higher price than a pizza from the same establishment made with pepperoni and mozzarella from a major distributor, which would have a higher emission label and a corresponding lower price. As with many Swedes, some US consumers will not change their eating habits. But how many of us have been torn between two items at the supermarket or at the local grill? I have a feeling that understanding the true cost to the planet will move a significant portion of the population to choose the meal or product with the lower CO2 emissions. They may not always make choices based on emissions information but if enough people do it even occasionally, their impacts will create change.

If I begin to make food purchasing decisions based on the new food labeling, I am able to help re-focus the companies that produce the food. If Tyson Fresh Meats, the largest beef and pork supplier in the world, observes even a minor fluctuation in the amount of meat they are selling because their products have a high CO2 count, they will no doubt work to become competitive with companies that can provide these items with lower emissions. One of the first steps to measure and then reduce a carbon footprint is to assess the carbon released during each step of the supply chain. By encouraging its suppliers to reduce their emissions, Tyson could literally change the face of the industry. There are numerous examples of how the sustainability requirements Wal-Mart put in place have forced their suppliers to make a variety “green” business changes, many times looking to their own suppliers and asking them to reduce their CO2 emissions. Eventually each player in the chain cleans up their process and we all win.

I have been reading articles for several years that extol the virtues of a plant-based diet. The theme of these pieces has increasingly moved from human health to the well-being of the planet. In addition to their goals of generating all of their energy from non-carbon based fuels by 2020 and not allowing the sale of fossil fuel powered vehicles by 2030, Sweden has researched what else they can do to help reduce their country’s carbon emissions. By rolling out the inclusion of CO2 emission information with one of the most common items in our day-to-day lives, they have pioneered a system that has the power to transform the way we look at our food and the way we interact with our planet.

I am very hopeful that despite the logistical challenges, carbon dioxide emissions labels on food will soon be as common as nutritional information. I foresee both government and private institutions playing a role in developing the program as well as educating consumers on how to decipher CO2 figures. Whether or not consumers decide to act on this information is still unknown. I like to think that if we were able to ensure the safety of dolphins by demanding they be protected during tuna fishing, we will find it a way to make food choices that ensure the entire Earth is spared while we work to feed ourselves.

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FOOD Inc. Shows That Consumers Can Change Corporations

October 14, 2009 1 comment

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*** This blog has moved. Please come and read new posts on our updated site, The Natural Strategy Blog.***

I just returned from seeing FOOD Inc., a new documentary about the industrialization of the American food industry. I knew the basic message would revolve around how distant we as a nation have become from the food we consume. I also had a feeling that Monsanto and their evil seed empire would make an appearance. What I was not expecting was to learn so much about how the incredible quantity of meat we eat in our country is supplied. I was also surprised to hear that the rise of fast food created a demand for cheap ingredients and helped spur the growth of the modern day corporate farm.

When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, his infamous expose of the meat industry in the early 1900s,  his words shed light on both the unsanitary processing facilities as well as the exploitation of immigrant workers in the meat factories of Chicago. The public was outraged and demanded safer meat, a bit ironic because Sinclair had hoped to raise awareness of the dangerous working conditions. The Pure Food Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act gave people safer meat and workers better conditions. Evidently these changes, and others that followed, were effective, for being a meat packer became a well-paid and respected position by the 1950s, in line with the often venerated American autoworker. This is in stark contrast to today’s meat plants, which are among the most dangerous places to work in the US. So what happened? Among other reasons, FOOD Inc. says, McDonald’s happened.

By getting rid of its waitresses and turning their kitchen into an assembly line, McDonald’s developed the foundation for the modern day industrial food company. People were trained to perform the same job over and over and over again. They were treated as machines, paid a low wage, and disposed of at will because other workers were readily available to take their place. As fast food grew, McDonald’s needed larger and larger quantities of meat, potatoes, chicken, lettuce, etc. They demanded that farmers ensure consistent quality in their products while at the same time decreasing their cost. How were the farmers of the 1950 and 1960s able to meet this demand? They were not and the corporate farm was born.

According to the movie, in the 1970s, the top four beef producers made up approximately 20% of the industry. Today, they account for almost 80%. The US has gone from having hundreds of slaughter houses to only thirteen major factories that process beef. Not only are the cows being kept in high density feedlots, they are being feed a diet of corn instead of what ruminants typically eat, grass. Corn is used because its production is heavily subsidized by the federal government and the cost to ranchers is actually below the cost of production. It also makes the cows grow larger and fatter.

The corn produces an unnatural environment in the cow rumination chamber and encourages the growth of harmful e-coli. Reports of e-coli tainted meat increased throughout the 1990s and we have even seen other crops, such as spinach and peanuts, become infected over the last few years. E-coli outbreaks have killed multiple people, one of the most notable of which was a 2 1/2 year old boy who died twelve days after eating an infected hamburger while on vacation with his family. This tragedy was the impetus for Kevin’s Law, a food safety bill that has been bounced around Capital Hill for almost a decade but has yet to find its way into law.

Despite a fair amount of doom and gloom concerning the current state of our food system, FOOD Inc. offers a strong sense that this madness can be stopped. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia is an honest, humble, and insightful spokesperson for a farming system that treats animals as living beings and rewards small scale agriculture with fresh, nutrient packed, and delicious food. The audience clapped when he mused about what happens to people who treat cattle, chickens, and pigs as if they were only a raw material. He wondered how we will treat our neighbors, our community, and the rest of the world if we can’t treat our food and the people who raise and process it with respect.

After the movie ended and the house lights came on, I left the Portsmouth Music Hall thinking about what Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, said near the end of the film about the power of consumers. He assured us that companies will do what we as consumers want. When Wal-Mart customers showed a preference for milk free of rGBH, an artificial growth hormone, the company switched to non-rGBH milk. This has more or less “nailed the coffin” on rGBH because of Wal-Mart’s tremendous buying power.

Each time we buy an item at the grocery store or the farmers market, we are sending a message to the food industry. Companies spend millions of dollars every year to find out what consumers want. Let’s make sure to tell them we need local food grown and raised with care on organic farms. And this food will taste even better when we know our choices are changing the way the modern way farms operate.

Local Food: Another Piece in the Sustainability Puzzle

September 3, 2009 Leave a comment

*** This blog has moved. Please come and read new posts on our updated site, The Natural Strategy Blog. ***

August is New Hampshire Eat Local Month and a great example of the growing push to reorganize our society and economy around environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices. Eating local foods not only helps combat global warming by reducing the transportation required to get food to our tables, it provides a major boost to the Granite State economy. Increasing the production and consumption of locally grown food and moving away from super-sized supermarkets is an important step in creating a truly sustainable society.

The development of the modern day grocery store did not happen over night; however, more has changed in the way we grow and purchase food during the past 50 years than during any other time in human history. The current model favors rapidly produced items made from ingredients that are increasingly devoid of nutritional value. Food is a multi-billion dollar business in the US and much of what we find in our Hannaford, Shaw’s, and Market Basket stores comes from monstrous manufacturing facilities completely detached from the reality that their products are intended to nourish people.

Instead of providing healthy food choices at honest prices, most of the over 45,000 items found in a typical supermarket reflect the attitude of their makers. Primarily, that food is just another product to sell. Our consumer driven society has let them be successful in marketing this food because we like the promises of fat free ice cream and the sound of exotic spring water. When the marketing efforts are more important than product itself, we have a problem. The recently released movie Food, Inc. likens today’s food industry to the giant cigarette companies that once stood proud and tall as model corporate citizens. Both, it claims, mis-led the public about the effects of their products and both fought vigorously to continue their charade while the health of our country suffered. Phillip- Morris had to change its name, it now goes by Altria,  and its strategy, such as focusing on reducing under age smoking, because of the dubious nature of its business. I wonder if Kraft, and its horrible products like lunchables which have 17 grams of fat and 1100 mg of sodium in a single serving, will one day be forced to do the same.

The wonderful truth about local food in New England is that it can supply most of what we want as consumers. Our farmers’ markets abound with fresh vegetables, ripe fruit, and many locally produced jams, breads, meats, and dairy products. The food tastes better because it was picked recently when it was ripe, not weeks beforehand and then shipped to us from 3000 miles away.  Producing and consuming foods within a local geographical region is a model that thrived for several thousand years. It is time to focus on local food grown within a few hundred miles of our homes and businesses and restoring our communities to fully functioning organisms.

The transition to a new food economy is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. What could be more natural than buying food from your local farmer, to say nothing of growing some yourself. California and Mexico provide examples of where the process becomes more difficult. The San Joaquin Valley produces more than ten percent of our county’s food. Turning off their pipeline of lettuce, raisins, beef, and asparagus may help the farmers in NH but many of those in CA would have to shift into new industries as their national markets are reduced by a growing demand for regional food.

Which brings me back to August being NH Eat Local Month. Initiatives like this start the discussion. Many of us have been speaking about the benefits of local food for years. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to which my family and I belong is an example of what happens when local food becomes important to many residents of the same locale. Together with about 30 other members, we pay the farmers at Brookford Farm in Rollingsford, NH for a share of their harvest. In return we recieve twenty pounds of fresh produce every week as well as milk, yogurt, eggs, a chicken, and some beef. What could be better? Fresh food from local people.

As we close in on 2010, I often find myself excited thinking about the changes taking place here in NH. The University Office of Sustainability (USO) at UNH is doing fantastic work with their Food & Society Initative, which promotes local agriculture and the concept of a Sustainable Food Community. The number of farmers’ markets across the state has risen from less than 20 to over 100 in the past decade. This equates to more local food available to more citizens and less manufactured food required by our population. As individuals, families, and businesses become increasingly involved, momentum is building and another piece in the sustainability puzzle is being put into place.