Good news for honey lovers! The sweet is getting good reviews not only for its health benefits, but also because it is environmentally friendly due to its low “carbon footprint.”
Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, Environmental Strategies Research Group, Stockholm, Sweden and colleagues at Göteburg have written that climate change has emerged as perhaps the most urgent global environmental problem. They concluded that one of the most polluting ever day activities people engage in is food consumption.1 Greenhouse gases from the food sector are more than substantial and lowering them can help stabilize addition of these gases to the atmosphere.
The authors review in some detail a body of published evidence showing how food is a main contributor to human energy use. Its production and consumption can affect every thing from greenhouse gas emission to methane production from livestock, and nitrous oxide (N20) from fertilizer use. In general, moving from consumption of meat and cheese to vegetables and locally, produced fresh foods lowers energy inputs and results in less greenhouse gases. However, the authors have gone much further than this in their study by adding into the equation other aspects of energy use in food production, including transportation and other cultural practices. The measurements are so detailed that the authors believe the information in their research will allow menu planning and recipe evaluation in average Swedish food consumption patterns.
In an effort to quantify the above as scientists are wont to do, the authors have studied the energy inputs from food life cycles. It turns out diets with similar dietary energy consumed by one person can vary by a factor of four (4). The energy measurement chosen is the megajoule (MJ). This is a difficult number to get one’s brain around, and after attempting to calculate what it means, I now understand why the authors decided not to define the unit in their paper. Rather they prefer to simply use it in a relative sense. Thus, factor of four mentioned above means a range of 13 to 52 MJ. This is further refined by using the ratio of MJ per kilogram (Kg) of weight in the calculation (MJ/Kg). One Kg equals 2.2 pounds (lbs).
An example of the intensive calculations by the investigators is provided for jam. Most jams in Sweden displayed in stores were produced by either a large company with a manufacturing plant in the south of Sweden or smaller producers located in the north. The majority of the sugar was produced in southern Sweden or Denmark and cultivated fruits were generally frozen on arrival and came from Eastern Europe or Central America. Berries harvested in the wild were also frozen on arrival, originating in Northern Sweden or Russia. Recipes differed in amount of sugar and fruit used. Given all these variables, six typical jam types were selected by the authors for final calculation based on visits to retailers, contacts with suppliers and importers, and selection of specific products.
A large category in the study was sweets. These can have large energy inputs, according to the authors, averaging 18 MJ/Kg up to to 44 MJ/Kg. In Sweden consumption of sweets and snacks is equivalent to the amount of fish eaten (12 Kg/Yr). They concluded: “The increasing consumption of sweets is therefore not only a health concern, but also an ecological issue.” I personally am not happy that chocolate rates the highest 44 MJ/Kg, but am delighted to see that local Swedish honey has the lowest rating of all foods provided in the paper, 1.3 MJ/Kg. Even imported honey gets a good score at 5.6 MJ/Kg.
The authors stated that sweets and drinks may contribute up to a third of total energy credits for food consumption. They suggested it might be interesting to look for energy-efficient and non-consumption alternatives, and concluded: “If eating sweets means comfort, perhaps an energy efficient back-rub could do the trick?” Those who can’t kick the habit like myself, however, at least now have the knowledge that honey takes top prize as the most environmentally friendly sweet.
And the more “local” it is the better. It is obvious from the study that local honey outperforms the imported stuff when it comes to climate change. And eating local is becoming a bigger thing these days. In fact guess what is the 2007 Word of the Year for the Oxford American Dictionary. Go to the head of the class if you chose “locavore.” Thus, it makes more and more sense to get your local fix by purchasing at the local farmers market, netting in the process something we all are hearing more about these days “carbon credits.” .
Carlsson-Kanyama, et. al. 2003. “Food and life cycle energy inputs: consequences of diet and ways to increase efficiency.” Ecological Economics (Vol. 44, pp. 293-307).