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The life cycle of our food

These past few years the interest in sustainability has grown tremendously. The question may now rise: what is sustainability? And how can you measure this? Sustainable development has been defined by the Brundtland committee in 1987 as

"A development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The reasons for our unsustainable society and its effect on our planet are widely known by now. Inevitably, people start questioning their lifestyle and what they can do to help our planet. And we are looking for solutions.

What we will do is try to help you to reduce your climate impact by making small changes to your diet. This means that we will give tips and tricks on what to eat, when to eat it (throughout the year) and where to buy it. We want to do this the right way and will therefore briefly explain what makes one dish more ‘sustainable’ than another.

The life cycle of bread

We will look at the sustainability of a product by analyzing its life cycle, which means looking at all of the stages from the production to its disposal or reuse. Let’s look at the example of making bread. The life cycle looks at the resources of a material, so in our example this means that we look at how the wheat is grown. This takes into account the fertilizer, the land use and the water it takes to grow it. When we look at animal related products such as cheese or meat, this stage also takes into account the production of the animal food, meaning the land and water used for the crops required to feed the animals.

Then it looks at the processing, which for our example means the harvesting, the grinding of the wheat into flower and finally baking it into a bread. Then we have a look at the transport, so how far the bread must travel to get to the store. The retailing of the product is up next, which basically looks at energy requirements of the store, like refrigerators and so on. Finally, we take a look at what the impact is of the use of the product and eventually we look at how the product is disposed off.

But how does this all translate into values? What do we actually measure? This is the hard part, because there are a lot of parameters you can take into account and they all have a different meaning and importance, depending on what you look at. You can express this using the water that is used and polluted during the process, the greenhouse gasses that are released or the eutrophication of the soil. These are only examples, because the official LCA (which means life cycle assessment) looks at a total of 15 factors.

A very important thing for this method is the scope that is defined before the analysis is made. This is often what makes it hard to compare products and what leaves room for discussion. As already mentioned in the article 'A real solution for climate change: changing your diet.', it is often hard to assign pollution to a certain product. If we use animal manure for the fertilization of plants, should the pollution that accompanies this be assigned to the plants or the animal products? It is also difficult to set boundaries for the life cycle. Harvesting of crops often requires machinery and then the question arises whether the pollution created by the production of this machinery, like pollution gasses from the factory, should also be taken into account.

This all shows the difficulties we are facing when analyzing the climate effects of different food products. Luckily, a lot of research has already been performed and we can now use these values to really start to make a change, by providing scientific data to describe an ecological eating pattern. We will, at first, focus on the contribution to global warming and after a while start to include all effects the product may have on biodiversity or regarding their water use. This way, we hope to help you help our planet. Because it needs you.

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