Bread’s carbon footprint requires conscious eating

Lydia Marcus–Staff Writer

Since the beginning of the year, the Defender Grille has sold about 640 loaves of bread.

And that’s just the Casey’s Bakery loaves.

Each week, the Grille uses about 651 sub sandwich buns, 430 pretzel buns and 434 hamburger buns. That’s a lot of bread.

Though we don’t often think about it, what we eat impacts our environment.

“Every food or product we consume comes with a carbon footprint,” said Lindsay Mouw, senior biology major and president of EcoDefenders.

Recent research examining the environmental impact of bread found that the nitrogen fertilizer used in wheat cultivation contributes 43 percent of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Of course, wheat is not the only plant that requires nitrogen fertilizer—as any good resident of Iowa knows, corn and soybeans require nitrogen fertilizer, as well. However, wheat seems to be one of the most significant crop contributors to greenhouse gases.

Normally, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb and re-emit certain wavelengths of UV rays radiated from the earth’s surface. Elevated levels of greenhouse gas, resulting from frequent and widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer (among other things) prevent the UV rays from leaving the atmosphere as usual. Instead, the radiation gets trapped within the atmosphere, contributing to a shift in climate.

But nitrogen fertilizer has done a lot of good, too. A growing global population requires efficient agricultural systems in order to survive. Nitrogen fertilizer, along with other agricultural developments, has dramatically increased the efficiency of farming in the last few decades. This increase has obvious benefits for both the farmers and the consumers. Yet, the efficiency enabled by nitrogen fertilizer usage is not without long-term consequences.

It is a difficult balance to strike, recognizing the economic importance of the current agricultural system while still heeding the environmental consequences of such a system. The answer is not obvious.

Knowledge requires action. It is clear that the large quantity of wheat we consume has consequences for creation, and most people would agree that heedless destruction of the natural world is something to avoid whenever possible.

One way you may moderate the impact of wheat consumption is by adopting conscientious eating habits. This is admittedly a hard thing to ask of students who are famed for subsisting on ramen and coffee. But conscientious eating can be as simple as eating less bread or buying only as much bread as you know you’ll eat—today, 32 percent of bread is thrown out. If you’re willing to vote with your wallet, you can purchase bread made from wheat that is grown using lower impact agricultural practices.

“In order to be wise stewards of our resources, we need to be knowledgeable and mindful of the footprints of our food and then frequently choose foods that have smaller footprints while limiting ourselves with those foods that have high environmental impacts,” Mouw said.

“Generally, the greater amount of processing that goes into a food, the greater the environmental footprint of that food,” said Mouw. Foods such as bread require a significant amount of processing, so Mouw suggests treating bread as a luxury food rather than a diet staple.

“Eating eco-friendly can be more expensive,” Mouw said, “but consider increasing or decreasing just a few certain foods in your diet and calculate the decrease of the environmental impact your diet has by just switching a few foods.”

“By insisting on eating food grown by farms using methods like cover crops, terraces, windbreaks and stream buffers, you are creating a market that supports farmers who are trying to raise food with a smaller carbon footprint,” said Renee Ewald, chair of the Sustainability Committee. “This allows them to succeed in their methods and makes it more attractive for other farmers to also switch to these methods.”

Ewald also suggested eating produce that is in season and shopping at places like Fareway, a local grocery stores that tries to buy local produce.

“Conscientious eating plays a massive role in environmental stewardship,” Ewald said. “College students can eat more ethically in very simple and cost-effective ways.”

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