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The Environmental Cost of Food Production
July 25, 2018

Assessing the cost to the environment of human activity involves a wide range of topics. Most often the conversation has focused on the obvious contributors such as greenhouse gas emissions from industrial and power generation sources, the use of fossil fuels across a myriad of activities, deforestation, and the pollution of waterways and oceans around the planet. Left out of the conversation more often than not is an area that impacts everyone, food production, specifically animal protein.

According to information provided by the University of Washington (UW), researchers there have undertaken the challenge of quantifying the cost to the environment of the different aspects of animal protein production.

The study, “The environmental cost of animal source foods,” was published recently in the online journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and its authors, Ray Hilboro, Jeannette Banobi, Teresa Pucylowski, Tim Walsworth, and Stephen Hall, believe it is the most comprehensive look at the environmental impacts of different types of animal protein production.

“From the consumer’s standpoint, choice matters,” noted lead author Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “If you’re an environmentalist, what you eat makes a difference. We found there are obvious good choices, and really obvious bad choices.”

The study, partially funded by the Seafood Industry Research Fund, is based on nearly a decade of analysis, in which hundreds of published life-cycle assessments for various types of animal protein production were reviewed. Also called a “cradle-to-grave” analysis, these assessments look at environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life.

Of the more than 300 such assessments that exist for animal food production, 148 were selected that were comprehensive and not considered too “boutique,” or specialized, to inform the new study.

As decisions are made about how food production expands through agricultural policies, trade agreements and environmental regulations, the authors note a “pressing need” for systematic comparisons of environmental costs across animal food types.

“I think this is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Prof. Hilborn stated. “Policymakers need to be able to say, ‘There are certain food production types we need to encourage, and others we should discourage.‘”

Broadly, the study uses four metrics as a way to compare environmental impacts across the many different types of animal food production, including farm-raised seafood (called aquaculture), livestock farming and seafood caught in the wild. The four measures are: energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, potential to contribute excess nutrients — such as fertilizer — to the environment, and the potential to emit substances that contribute to acid rain.

The researchers compared environmental impacts across food types by using a standard amount of 40 grams of protein — roughly the size of an average hamburger patty, and the daily recommended protein serving. For example, they calculated how much greenhouse gas was produced per 40 grams of protein across all food types, where data were available.

“This method gives us a really consistent measurement people can relate to,” Prof. Hilborn explained.

The analysis showed clear winners that had low environmental impacts across all measures, including farmed shellfish and mollusks, and capture fisheries such as sardines, mackerel and herring. Other capture fish choices with relatively low impact are whitefish like pollock, hake and the cod family. Farmed salmon also performed well. But the study also illuminated that industrial beef production and farmed catfish are the most taxing on the environment.

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