I ate how many trees for breakfast?

From water to trees to bees, there are a lot of natural elements that go into making our food that aren't listed on nutrition labels.  PHOTO: Chris Helzer/TNC
© From water to trees to bees, there are a lot of natural elements that go into making our food that aren't listed on nutrition labels. PHOTO: Chris Helzer/TNC

Here is what nutrition labels do not tell us about what goes into our food.

By Rebecca Benner, New York State Science Director, The Nature Conservancy

What if the next time you went to the grocery store and picked up a box of cereal the ingredient list read “10 trees, 30 cups of water, 8 wild bees, Vitamin A, Vitamin, B, and Iron.” In other words, what if the ingredient list included the environmental “ingredients” that went into making the item? Would this change your purchase? Would you choose your second favorite cereal if it required only five trees to produce? Unfortunately, we don’t usually have the option to choose based on environmental impacts. We make everyday decisions about what to buy, to eat and to wear with almost no knowledge of the role that nature played in producing our choices.

So what, exactly, do I mean by saying that the ingredient list on your morning cereal could also contain three wild bees and a small patch of forest? Let’s start with beef. Did you know that just one pound of beef requires roughly 1,800 gallons of water to produce? That’s over 230,000 average-sized glasses of water! And, given that the average cow produces around 530 pounds of beef, that means almost one million GALLONS of water are required for the meat from one cow – enough water to fill one and a half Olympic-size swimming pools! If that information was on your beef label the next time you went to the store, do you think you might opt for the chicken (which uses four times less water per pound of meat)?

It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. PHOTO: Mark Gocke© It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. PHOTO: Mark Gocke

But this isn’t just about eating less meat - there are plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains that take a toll on our environment the way they are produced. Wheat, for example, accounts for 12% of global water use for agricultural production! Also, fertilizer used in wheat production can cause major water pollution problems, which can then negatively impact the trees and the bees. This brings us back to the crux of the issue - consumers don’t have an easy way to access this information before making choices about what to buy.
Wheat accounts for 12% of global water use for agricultural production.  PHOTO: Dave Lauridsen© Wheat accounts for 12% of global water use for agricultural production. PHOTO: Dave Lauridsen

I’m optimistic enough to believe that, prices and product quality being roughly equivalent, people would choose products with less environmental impact if they had any measure of that impact. A simple composite measure of the resources that went into a product (e.g. water, trees), as well as natural resources degraded (e.g. water pollution, air pollution, carbon release, habitat destroyed) in the production for a wide variety of consumable goods (not just food), would enable people to make smarter everyday decisions. This isn’t about guilt; it’s about making empowered choices. This kind of empowered choice is essential for conservation to succeed.

So what is standing in the way of the development of a tool, a smartphone app for example, which might impart this knowledge to consumers? A few key things:

    1. It’s hard to do. It requires doing a lot of science and making a lot of assumptions/estimates within that science.
    2. Someone needs to fund that science.
    3. Requiring such a label would be a difficult, if not impossible, political process.

Although efforts like this are not unheard of, they need more funding and greater publicity.

Pollinating insects, like bees and butterflies, play a critical role in agricultural production.  PHOTO: Chris Helzer/TNC© Pollinating insects, like bees and butterflies, play a critical role in agricultural production. PHOTO: Chris Helzer/TNC

Luckily, the consumer doesn’t need to wait for all of this to happen to make a difference. Here is what you can start doing now:

    1. Educate yourself as best as possible about what really goes into our consumables by watching movies like “Food, Inc.” or reading books like “Food Rules” or perusing websites like Environmental Impact and checking out The Nature Conservancy’s carbon calculator.

    2. Be thoughtful. Buy what you need and recognize the impact each good has on the environment.
    3. Support transparency. Buy from local vendors whose supply chain is known.

We can’t take into account every aspect of everything we eat or buy. That would be overwhelming and exhausting. But if we can at least consider the environmental footprint of the things we wear, eat, and use, we will be doing our best for both the environment and ourselves.

Tags: Agriculture | Beef | Conservation | Farming | Food Security | Water Conservation

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