What's The Environmental Footprint Of A Loaf Of Bread? Now We Know

Feb 27, 2017
Originally published on March 2, 2017 12:40 pm

When it comes to climate change, we often think of the cars we drive and the energy we use in our homes and offices. They are, after all, some of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. But what about the toast you ate for breakfast this morning?

A new study published Monday in Nature Plants breaks down the environmental cost of producing a loaf of bread, from wheat field to bakery. It finds that the bulk of the associated greenhouse gas emissions come from just one of the many steps that go into making that loaf: farming.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Sheffield, in the U.K. They wanted to understand the environmental impacts of the entire life cycle of a common staple. They chose bread and used a "real-world supply chain," says Liam Goucher, the lead author of the study and a research fellow at the Grantham Center for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield. "We focused on a specific farm, which was in Lincoln, in the U.K., and we focused on a specific mill and a specific [commercial] bakery."

They collected and analyzed data for emissions involved at every step of the process, including growing the wheat, fertilizing it, harvesting the crop, transporting the grains to the mill, grinding the grains into flour, transporting the flour to a bakery and then baking and packaging a loaf of bread. Scientists call this a life cycle analysis.

Many stages were energy intensive and involved with emissions — for example, the machinery involved with tilling the soil, harvesting, and irrigation, or the electricity required to operate the mill and the bakery. But the vast majority of emissions — nearly 66 percent — came from growing wheat.

"We found that over half of the environmental impacts of producing a loaf of bread come from wheat cultivation," says Goucher. "The interesting thing is that 40 percent is attributable just to the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizers alone, which is a huge amount, when you consider it." The fertilizers also cause a lot of water pollution when they run off into streams and rivers.

Globally, agriculture is thought to contribute about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. That includes the emissions from deforestation to create farmlands. And we also know about the emissions involved in manufacturing fertilizers (an energy-intensive process) and their use on farms. Farmers typically use more fertilizers than they need to, and not all nitrogen in the fertilizers is used up by plants. Some of the nitrogen goes back into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

What is new about the study, says Goucher, is that it breaks down the emissions at every step, so we can figure out which steps to focus on to reduce emissions.

"It kind of points to the fact that if you want to reduce the climate impact of food production, we need to think of fertilizer manufacturing and fertilizer application as one place where we have big leverage to reduce climate impact," says Navin Ramankutty, a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, who was not involved in the study. There are known ways to reduce use of nitrogen fertilizers, like applying fertilizers only at certain times of the growing season, when plants need them the most.

The study is "very interesting, very complete," says James Galloway, an expert on nitrogen cycles at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, who was not involved in the new study. "This is exactly the kind of thing that should be done with other food commodities."

Galloway says it would be even more useful to do such analysis on animal products like beef and pork, which we know are bigger sources of greenhouse gas emissions. "That would have interesting results and would be even more useful if you're going to ask the question, 'What can society do about the issue?' " he adds. "This type of analysis would generate very well the take-home message that if you only eat the amount of protein you're supposed to eat, as opposed to overconsumption, you would decrease the environmental footprint."

In the future, this kind of analysis could be used to create a market for foods with lower emissions, says Ramankutty. The way to do that is by "asking consumers to vote with their money," he says.

If for example, customers demand "climate-smart bread," then bakeries would have to prove that their bread uses less energy than the average loaf. Bakeries can in turn influence the supply chain. "They can go back to the farmer and say, 'Can you use less fertilizer, or use organic fertilizer?' " Ramankutty says. That could become a productive way to make sure that the food we eat has a smaller climate impact, he adds.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to talk now about a loaf of bread. Specifically, we're going to talk about how from farm to grocery store shelf that loaf of bread impacts the planet.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And this story is going to come from NPR's food editor, Rhitu Chatterjee. Welcome to the studio.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Thank you, Audie. Good to be here.

CORNISH: So, Rhitu, there's a study out that shows the connection between a loaf of bread and global warming - each step of production, right? How did it work?

CHATTERJEE: So, you know, think about a loaf of bread, which I brought with me. It's an average - you know, you can find this loaf of whole wheat bread in a grocery store. And think about every step of the process, Audie, that leads to making this loaf of bread - the growing of it, the milling and the baking of it.

So this team of researchers at the Grantham's Center for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. looked at every single step of that process to figure out what are the emissions associated with each step and then added it all up.

CORNISH: And what did they find in terms of emissions? How much energy does it take to make this loaf of bread?

CHATTERJEE: So they were looking at greenhouse gas emissions. And what they found is if you look at a single loaf of bread, they found the entire process that went into making it releases about 21 ounces of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That's about the weight of this loaf of bread.

It doesn't seem much. But if you look at it at the country level, the U.K., where the study was done, consumes over 4 billion loaves every year. And using the researchers' calculations, that means about 2.6 million tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere just from the bread consumed in the U.K. That's not insignificant.

CORNISH: Now, what point of the production chain was the problem?

CHATTERJEE: Take a guess.

CORNISH: Not the transport?

CHATTERJEE: No, it was actually the growing of the wheat. The farming led to nearly 50 percent of the overall emissions associated with the bread. And that's what the researchers are saying. If we understand where our food comes from, how it's grown, if you look at every step, we can figure out where most of the emissions are coming from. And it's a good way for us to figure out how to cut back on the emissions associated with all the food we eat.

CORNISH: Did they offer any suggestions on that front, though, of ways we can cut back?

CHATTERJEE: They did. One of their solutions was, you know, start with the nitrogen fertilizers that are applied on the farms because 40 percent of the emissions are coming from the manufacture and the use of nitrogen fertilizers on farms. So that's a good place to start.

CORNISH: And what about for the rest of us? When I'm in the grocery store, how should I be thinking differently?

CHATTERJEE: Well, the hope is in the future this kind of information will be made available to consumers. So say, for example, I want to eat a pastrami sandwich. And today, I already know that's a beef, for example - leads to a lot higher emissions than slices of bread. But in the future, if I had the information on, well, how does the emissions from a cheese and tomato sandwich compare with that of a pastrami sandwich, then that helps me make a choice of eating food that's, say, climate smart - that has fewer emissions.

CORNISH: Climate smart - we'll be seeing that soon next to the nutritional label, right?

CHATTERJEE: Exactly.

CORNISH: That's NPR's food editor Rhitu Chatterjee. Thanks for stopping by.

CHATTERJEE: My pleasure.

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