Food's Lifecycle

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 5:41 PM

The process of traveling food involves many more harmful steps to our environment and health that we don’t always take into account. This involves not only the travel, but every step from beginning to end. We as consumers need to be aware of what steps really go into the food we eat. If you are going to buy conventionally produced (fed non-organic grain, raised and fattened in confined feeding operations) meat or dairy products there are even more steps that go into producing them that are toxic to the environment. They require the most resources to produce and therefore have one of the greatest impacts on the environment. Below I have broken down the steps foods go through in their lifecycle and their impact.

Transport: Not only is the product we eat being transported, but every ingredient that goes in it, even the fertilizer and pesticides used need to be transported from their source to the factory then to retailers. However, this transportation only accounts for 10% of the carbon footprint of meat and dairy. This doesn’t mean the number is low, it’s not, it just means that there is a lot more that goes into the production of these products that have an even greater impact on the environment.

Water: Electricity is used to pump water for farming, feed production, and meat processing. In California 34% of all their irrigated water is used for feed production for animals. It takes about 1,857 gallons of water for every pound of beef and 469 gallons without processing to produce a pound of chicken. This overuse of water accelerates the depletion of aquifers. The sources where the water comes from are not being replenished fast enough to be able to sustain the usage.

Pesticides: Pesticides are used to grow crops and animal feed. They contaminate the air, water, soil and even affect our wildlife. Just producing pesticides uses electricity, natural gas, and steam, while releasing carbon dioxide and other toxins into the air. “A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey found that pesticides contaminated 90 percent of all agricultural streams tested. Nearly 10 percent of them had concentrations considered unsafe for human health.”

Fertilizers: Along with pesticides, fertilizers are also used to grow crops and animal feed. To produce fertilizers phosphorus and potassium are often minded that use extensive amounts of water and cause contamination, soil erosion, and air pollutants. The use of phosphorus and potassium result in the release of dozens of other pollutants into the environment. Fertilizers generate nitrous oxide, this is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more harmful to the environment that carbon dioxide.

Feed Production (Meat & Dairy): Half of all the U.S. cropland that is harvested is used for producing animal feed. Pesticides and fertilizers are used to grow animal feed, but tractors and other farming equipment are also factors that eat up fuel and release carbon dioxide. Feed production accounts for 53% of emissions for poultry and 23% for beef, of which a majority of these emissions are nitrous oxide.

Grazing (Meat & Dairy): Typically animals that are going to be used for consumption live their first 6 to 9 months on grazing land. There are so many animals that 700 million acres have been devoted in the U.S. to this grazing land for animals. These animals digestive process release methane gas and nitrous oxide from their manure. The mixture of manure and soil erosion near streams contaminate these waterways, thus contaminating drinking water as well. “Roughly 48,000 miles of rivers and streams and 400,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs are currently fouled by grazing, according to the EPA.”

Confined Feedlots (Meat & Dairy): Feedlots are used to pack thousands of animals into a tiny space before being slaughtered. Almost all the meat in the U.S. comes from animals that “lived” in these spaces. Not only is this inhumane, but the environment suffers as well. 500 million tons of manure each year are produced on feedlots. “Manure is the fastest growing major source of methane in the U.S.” These feedlots are also a breeding ground for viruses and disease that spread among the animals that we consume.

Slaughterhouses (Meat): Every year around 9 billion animals are slaughtered. Slaughterhouses account for 5% of beef, 13% of pork, and 24% of chicken’s emissions that use high volumes of water. Slaughterhouses pollute nearby waterways with their wastewater. Many slaughterhouses are among the top 20 industrial polluters of water in the nation.

Consumption: We are quite honestly consuming too much. “According to one study, American men consume almost twice the recommended amount of protein… eating large quantities of beef and processed meats increases our exposure to toxins and is linked to serious health problems such as heart disease, cancer and obesity.” Consumption is the reason for all of the steps above. We as consumers are the cause of so much food production, because we consumer so much and demand needs to be met. 

Waste: One of the biggest problems is that we as consumers are wasteful. About 20% of meat and dairy products sold in the U.S is thrown out. All the water usage and toxins being thrown into our environment are completely unnecessary. We are harming our environment just by not actually consuming the products we demand. Not only are we making the processing of these foods unnecessary but we take it a step further, when we throw food away it goes to a landfill where it breaks down and creates methane gas that is released into the atmosphere. 

Be aware that everything you buy goes through a process, some more harmful than others. Understanding the impact of each step allows you to be more aware and make better decisions about what you eat. It is not necessary to cut out foods all together, but rather find an alternative and don’t buy more than you and your household can consume. “If everyone in the US skipped meat and cheese just one day a week and replaced them with vegetable-based protein (lentils, tofu, beans, peanut butter), it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road.”

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