Environmental Impact of Food Production

June 7, 2018

A recently published article in Science discussing the environmental impact of food is being used by activist groups to push a vegan agenda. The authors of the article conducted a meta-analysis utilizing data from over 500 published articles. The research is heavily represented by studies done in Western Europe, where environmental impact studies are more common than elsewhere in the world.

While the authors conclude, “Most strikingly, impacts of lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change.”, there are other important considerations to analyze when interpreting the results.

Meta-analysis studies are challenging to conduct, and the data can be difficult to assess. In addition, studies assessing the environmental impact of foods can have widely varying results depending on what information a researcher chooses to include or not include, and what measures are used to determine the results.  For example, the nutrient density of foods is often not considered.  A study in 2015 found that animal products have lower greenhouse gas emissions than some grains and sweets when nutrient density is included as a measure in the research. The North American Meat Institute has developed a great resource that helps to combat some of the common misconceptions related to environmental impact and animal products.

The Science article does highlight valuable points of consideration. The environmental impact is highly variable and skewed with many products, including eggs. The researchers pull out the example of beef, with 25% of producers accounting for 56% of the greenhouse gas emissions. This high variability indicates there are opportunities for improvement, with high impact users adopting methods that minimize the environmental impact. Another conclusion by the authors is getting less attention but is perhaps most important.  “Cumulatively, our findings support an approach where producers monitor their own impacts, flexibly meet environmental targets by choosing from multiple practices, and communicate their impacts to consumers.”    Visit the Environment page at UnitedEgg.com to see the advancements in egg production and UEP’s Environmental Responsibility video.