UK research casts doubt on environmental claims

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Agriculture Sustainable agriculture Food

A UK-government research study on the environmental impacts of food
production casts doubt on commonly held opinions, such as claims
that organics are greener than conventionally-grown produce or that
preserved products have less of a effect than frozen ones.

The research project was conducted on behalf of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra) by the Manchester Business School. The data will be used to develop the UK's policy onreducing the impact of food production, processing, retailing and consumption on the environment. Assuch, it could result in new environmental laws that increase the cost of doing business.

The study used the technique of environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) to assess impact.Specific data was also used from applications for pollution prevention and control permits fromlager food processors in Yorkshire and the north east of England.

In the main the scientists involved in the study called for more research on the environmentalimpacts of food production. The range includes comparisons of the environmental impacts of a rangeof fresh and processed foods, organic and conventionally grown produce, and locally-sourced andimported foods.

In the case of organics the researchers found insufficient evidence to prove that organic agriculture is moreenvironmentally friendly than conventional agriculture.

While there is "no doubt" that for many organic foods the environmental impacts arelower than for the equivalent conventionally grown food, no "clear cut answer" exists toanswer the question as to which one is greener.

"In particular, from the data we identified, organic agriculture poses its ownenvironmental problems in the production of some foods, either in terms of nutrient release to wateror in terms of climate-change burdens,"​ they stated.

The evidence is also weak for the common claim that sourcing foods locally has less of anenvironmental impact than bulk haulage to major retail centers, the researcher stated.

"The evidence for the environmental impact of bulk haulage is not decisive,"​ theresearchers stated. "Since there is a wide variation in the agricultural impacts of foodgrown in different parts of the world, for example in the amounts of water consumed, global sourcingcould be a better environmental option for particular foods."

The researchers also found inconclusive evidence for comparing the environmental impacts of atrolley or basket of fresh foods versus cold versus preserved products. The energy consumptioninvolved in refrigeration means that a cold trolley has a higher environmental impact than a freshone, they noted.

However, the need to preserve food coupled with uncertainty about wastage, means that such asimple comparison would have very little value for formulating policy, they stated.

"So, it is not possible to make any general statements as to which of these trolleys isbetter better,"​ they said. "That said, the energy demand of refrigeration leads usto suspect that any growth in food transport -- and it is strongly projected -- is highly likely toincrease impacts linked to fossil-fuel use, while the growth of refrigeration as the default methodof food preservation and storage throughout the production-consumption system is similarily likelyto lead to higher impacts from electricity generation."

The data is also "not clear cut" about the difference in the environmental impact ofcar-based shopping and home cooking compared to air-freighted products. The environmental impacts ofaviation are important for air-freighted products but such products are a small proportion of foodconsumed, the researchers noted.

"However with the volume of air-freighting of food items set to grow fast,aviation-related transport emissions are likely to become more significant in the future,"​they said. "It is prudent to question whether this is a trend that should beencouraged."

In terms of packaging the environmental impacts is "certainly high" for some foods suchas bottled drinks, they stated.

"However, quantifying the overall environmental impact of packaging involves assumptionsabout local practices regarding packaging waste, so evidence of clear relevance to the UK is eithersparse or inconclusive,"​ they stated.

The researchers called for further studies, including a review of data in Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC)permit applications from food sector manufacturers and logistics systems.

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