A really crumby life cycle assessment: Bread!
Bread is a staple in most of our diets and everybody loves the smell of a freshly-baked loaf. It's been around in some form since before recorded history. Around 7,500 years ago in the Stone Age, people made bread-like solid cakes from stone-crushed barley and wheat. Loaves and rolls were found in Egyptian tombs and according to a bread history website you can actually see loaves that are over 5000 years old in the Egyptian section at the British Museum! Bread was also linked to social class with darker breads indicating lower classes and lighter breads, made with more expensive white flours, for upper classes. But have you ever thought about the environmental impacts of your bread? Four researchers at the German-based Institute for Energy and Environment Research (IFEU) carried out a life cycle assessment of 8 different scenarios for the production of 1 kg of bread "considering different crop production methods (conventional, organic), different milling technologies (industrial mill, domestic mill) and different baking technologies (large bread factory, bakery, domestic bread maker)." Their findings conclude that the best option (environmentally-speaking) is organically grown wheat, that has gone through industrial milling and is produced in a large bread factory. Their study, which follows the ISO standard, rightfully notes that, "In order to provide a complete image of all relevant environmental aspects such as resource and energy demand, greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, acidification, eutrophication, photo smog and demand of land area, the entire life cycle from the acquisition of raw materials, across the actual production and use, up to the final disposal/ recycling, needs to be considered."
They comment that the use of organically grown wheat does require 65% more land area than conventional methods, but this is mainly because of the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and the subsequent higher yields in the conventional system. The transport of bread by the consumer is also really important in assuring that this option stays the greenest. For example, if you buy organic bread at a supermarket and you manage to get organic bread from a large company BUT you drive more than a kilometer to get it and only it — then you just dumped the entire lovely green factor out of that bread. What does that mean?
Take your bike, use public transportation or make sure you are combining that bread purchase with all of your grocery shopping so you don't cancel out the environmental benefits of the bread (or other organic products) you might be buying.
We all know this — buy close to home and don't drive to get a single product. Most greenies are probably doing that now, but the benefit of an LCA is that we can see the numbers on paper to show the non-greenies that we did our homework. You can check out the presentation of this LCA on pages 9-16 of the conference proceedings from the 4th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-food sector here. Read Treehugger's How to Green Your Meals here.