Environmental Footprint Calculators Have a Big Flaw We Need to Talk About

Are you one of the growing number of people looking to minimize the environmental damage caused by the production of the food you eat? If so, you can use the common “environmental footprint” method to decide what to buy.

Environmental footprints measure the environmental damage caused by a product over its lifetime. For food, this includes the impacts of growing crops and livestock, and manufacturing necessary inputs such as fertilizers. This may also include packaging and transport.

But unfortunately, environmental footprints often don’t tell the whole story. When consumers turn to a food considered more environmentally friendly, its production expands to the detriment of other products. This has consequences that environmental footprints do not take into account.

Environmental footprint calculators can promise to help consumers lead greener lives. But they can actually encourage choices that don’t benefit – and may even harm – the environment.

Footprint calculators can encourage choices that don’t necessarily benefit the environment.
Neil Hall/EPA

A problematic assumption

We are experts in assessing the effectiveness of climate change mitigation for agricultural systems. We regularly provide policy advice to governments, UN agencies and other organizations.

The design of Environmental Footprint Calculators is guided by international standards bodies and policy makers, including the European Union. The tool is commonly found on the websites of environmental groups, government agencies, businesses, and other organizations.

The calculators aim to guide consumer choice, by assessing the impacts of current production on the environment. But that’s a problem.

It assumes that a product’s footprint calculated today remains constant as production increases or decreases, but this is often not true. When the demand for a product changes, it affects nature. This may mean that more agricultural land is needed or that water from rivers is used to irrigate different crops.

Below, we look at three ways environmental footprints can provide a misleading picture of a product’s true impacts.

1. Land use

Agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to animal belching, but also from the production and use of synthetic fertilizers.

Organic farming can help reduce emissions from agriculture, mainly because it does not use synthetic fertilizers. But some research suggests that converting to organic agricultural production could also exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.

the tractor plows the field
Some research suggests that converting to organic agricultural production could also exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.

A study in England and Wales looked at what would happen if all food production was converted to organic. He revealed that global greenhouse gas emissions from food production could increase by around 60%.

This is because organic systems produce lower yields, which means more plant and animal production overseas would be needed to make up the shortfall. Creating this agricultural land would amount to clearing the vegetation, which emits carbon dioxide as it decomposes.

And when grasslands are converted to cropland, soil organic carbon is also lost. Improved soil carbon storage through organic farming only offsets a small portion of the higher emissions overseas.

When considering the consequences of switching from one food to another, the type of agricultural land used is also important.

Read more: Meat and masculinity: why some men just can’t stand plant foods

In Australia, approximately 325 million hectares of land are used to raise cattle to produce red meat. These lands often cannot be used to grow crops because they are too dry, steep, vegetated or rocky.

If consumers were to switch from red meat to plant-based diets, more land suitable for growing crops, in Australia or overseas, would be needed to produce alternative proteins such as pulses or meats made from plants.

In Australia, existing arable land is already being used to supply domestic and global markets. Thus, new land should be made suitable for cultivation, either by cultivating pasture or by clearing forests. Alternatively, agricultural production could be increased by using more fertilizers or other inputs.

The emissions associated with these changes are not included in the carbon footprints of plant protein production.

cows grazing in the field
Around 325 million hectares of land in Australia is used to raise cattle for meat.
Rick Rycroft/AP

2. Water

It is generally assumed that choosing a product with a smaller water footprint will increase water in rivers and lakes, which replenishes the environment. However, in Australia, politics and markets determine how water is used.

Irrigation water can be exchanged between users. If a water-intensive crop like rice is no longer grown, the farmer will almost always use the water to grow a different crop or exchange it with another farmer. In such a scenario, no water is returned to the environment.

Similarly, a decline in red meat production does not necessarily increase water for the environment.

Farmers whose land is adjacent to a river or other body of water are allowed to abstract water for livestock watering. Fewer livestock would leave more water available in rivers, but research in Australia suggests that this water would be extracted for domestic uses, especially in dry years.

3. Goods produced together

Many agricultural products are produced in conjunction with others. For example, a cow slaughtered for its red meat will also produce hide, meat meal, and tallow. Similarly, a sheep can produce wool when it is alive and then other products when it is slaughtered.

So, if consumers avoided red meat because of its high carbon footprint, the associated products would also have to be substituted, which would have environmental impacts.

If synthetic materials replace wool or hides, for example, demand for oil will likely increase. Or if wool is replaced by bio-based products such as cotton or hemp, the demand for cropland will increase.

pile of handbags
A shift from skin to synthetic materials would likely increase oil demand.

Increasing milk production per cow – and therefore raising fewer cows – has been seen as a way to reduce emissions from livestock. But research suggests it might not have the desired result.

Fewer cows would produce fewer calves, which are used to produce veal. The research found that less veal would require more red meat to be produced elsewhere, meaning no overall reduction in emissions.

It is realistic to assume that more red meat would be needed. While per capita beef consumption is declining in some Western countries, global beef demand is projected to increase through 2030 as the wealth of developing countries increases and the world’s population grows.

Towards a healthier planet

We and other experts are increasingly trying to raise awareness of the simplistic nature of environmental footprints.

It is important to recognize the limitations of current methods and create tools that fully assess the consequences of consumer decisions.

Developing these tools will be difficult, due to the many uncertainties involved, and will require substantial research investments.

But it will lead to better environmental policy, fewer unintended consequences and a healthier planet.

Read more: Don’t drink milk? Here’s how to get enough calcium and other nutrients

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