Friday, June 16, 2006

Acres and Gallons

Time for another installment of Fat Knowledge's ongoing ideas on environmental and social labeling.

One question that I would love to see a label address is: how much land and energy is in the food I eat? I would like to see a label that listed the number of acres and gallons (of gasoline equivalent) it took to raise, process and transport the food. The store can tell you the price, but this allows you to see the environmental cost of the food.

The number of acres (or hectares for our metric friends) would allow you to see the size of your ecological footprint. The idea is to minimize your footprint, which allows for more agricultural land to be set aside for those in the 3rd world or for returning them to nature.

Unlike other ecological footprints, this would not include the impact of energy (as that is its own value). I find converting energy into land a find of strange thing to do. How exactly do you do it? Based on the amount of land required to sequester the carbon? The amount of land required to grow an equivalent of biofuels? The amount of land required to produce the energy with solar cells? There is no good way to do it so I would rather have the energy as a separate value.

The number of gallons (or liters) lets you know how much energy was required. I like gallons of gasoline equivalent because it is a measure of energy people can relate to. It could also be BTU, kWH or Joules. This would capture all of the energy required to grow the crops, to process them, and to transport them. The natural gas needed to create the fertilizer, the diesel needed to run the combine, the diesel used to transport the food to market would all be added up, and converted into total gallons. I would also like to see the number of gallons fossil fuel put in parentheses next to it, so you could see what percentage came from renewable energy.

How much fuel is in every product we purchase? It has been stated that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles. This article calculates that there is 1/2 a gallon of gasoline in every pineapple we purchase. With this label, we will finally be able to know.

This label would allows you to compare the environmental impact between different products. Which uses less land and energy, orange juice or apple juice? How does broccoli compare to chocolate chip cookies? How much less land and energy does it take for a meal based on grain vs one including meat? What changes in my diet that would have the biggest environmental impact?

It would allows you to see the impact of organic farming. I would expect to see less energy usage, but possibly more acreage (I would guess that organic food has less yield per acre compared to fertilized land). It would also allow you to see the impact of buying local. How much fuel was actually saved by buying the local crops?

At the end of the year, you could total everything up and see what the environmental impact of your diet is. How many total acres and gallons of gasoline did it take to produce my food? I don't have a good feel for this right now, which is why this would be so helpful.

I am still thinking through how exactly this would work. There are some issues that I am aware of but not quite sure how to handle.

On the acre side, how do you handle the fact that not all acres are the same? Some are more productive than others based on location (more sunlight year round at the equator than at the poles, longer summers though near the poles), water, and temperature? How do you factor in whether the land is being created by cutting down a forest? Or what do you do if the agriculture is leading to soil erosion or other things that make it unsustainable?

On the energy side, what about the fact that not all forms of energy are equal? From a carbon emissions and pollutant standpoint, natural gas is much cleaner than coal and oil is somewhere in the middle. Converting it all to one number you lose this. But, you need a simple number so people can use it easily.

How do you handle the energy used to create the machines used to harvest and process the food? I think you could amortize their energy expenses based on expected total usage.

How exactly would you calculate the amount of fuel needed to transport it to the store, as every product will travel a different distance to each store? Maybe you use average amounts? Or maybe in the future that information will be easy for each store to track, just as Wal-Mart is able to know to stock more Pop-Tarts in areas that are about to have hurricanes based on data they collect.

There are other issues about environmental impact that the label doesn't handle. Important things like water use, fertilizer run off, pesticide use, and soil erosion are not captured.

How to handle seafood? There is no land, but maybe you could figure out how much surface area is required to support the plankton that supports the food you are eating. You can still calculate the amount of fuel required to catch the seafood.

What about the packaging materials: metals, glass, plastics? The energy needed to produce them will be captured, but other impacts like mining and garbage aren't.

While their might be important information that isn't gathered, I think that the acres of land and the gallons of energy are the most important ones to collect. Once the data is gathered for acres and gallons, it could then be accessed through the augmented bar code, possibly by using a cellphone.

1 comment:

viral said...

half a gallon in a pineapple! oh geez ...

interesting post!

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