Pork’s Green House Gas Footprint

This past week I attended the Leman Swine Health Conference in St Paul and the Minnesota Nutrition Conference in Owatonna. At both conferences I listened to very good presentations that reminded me both of the challenges ahead for production agriculture and the on-going growth of our knowledge base to attack these challenges.

At the Leman Conference, the opening speaker was Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota. He talked about the challenge agriculture will face in feeding a world population that isn’t expected to plateau in growth until 2050 or so. If there is no ‘new’ land for the production of food and fiber, the only alternative is to generate more from the existing land base. Currently there are 16 million square kilometers of land surface used for crop production (approximately the size of South American) with another 30 million square kilometers used for pastures (approximately the size of Africa).

The combined crop and pasture land use accounts for approximately 40% of the earth’s land mass. It is estimated that by 2050 we must double global food production from this base. At the same time, we’re being asked to lower the environmental cost of food production and the impact of food production on all of the environmental parameters.

In a second session, Greg Thoma from the University of Arkansas presented the initial results of the life cycle assessment of the US pork supply chain. Funded by the National Pork Board, this assessment is trying to lay out the green house gas emissions associated with pork production from farm to fork. The net result of the study is that the overall estimated average carbon footprint for preparation and consumption of one 4 ounce serving of pork grown in US production facilities was 2.2 pounds of CO2 equivalent.

The contribution to the emission burden for each stage from farm to fork is estimated by these researchers to be:
• 12% from breed to wean production (includes feed grain production)
• 60% from wean to finish production (includes feed grain production)
• 5.3% from processing and packaging
• 9.4% from retail (electricity and refrigerants)
• 3.3% from the consumer (based on electric oven usage for 2 lb boneless pork product preparation)

What really got me thinking about our environmental foot print was the 3.3% footprint of the consumer. This is mostly petroleum fuel to drive our SUV to the grocery store and the electricity from coal fired generation stations for our in-home refrigerators and electric stoves. As the US moves towards even smaller numbers of individuals per household, the consumer impact on the life cycle emission load for our food choices will necessarily increase.

Note that transport is no listed as a major contributor of green house gases. When full trucks move goods, the amount of emissions per 4 ounce serving is relatively minor. Compare this to the emissions per 4 ounce serving from the consumer’s SUV trip to the local farmers market or grocery store.

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