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Become a Buying Hero; Buy Food…Discrimantely

January 17th, 2013 by Andrew J. Ripley


I’ve long believed the are two very real ways for most of us without super powers to change the world, how we vote and how we spend our money. When I tell people this they usually get the voting part, but not the buying part. It’s not a matter buying more or less, but rather, realizing that what you choose to buy, Product A versus Product B, can make as much or probably more of a difference than any sort of political advocacy or any spandex-clad vigilante. In essence, if enough people “demand” differently, “supply” will ultimately follow suit. Today, I want to look specifically at how to do this with food, but from a novel angle. However, first let’s look at…

A few examples of Buying Heroes:

  • People that participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott became Civil Rights Buying Heroes
  • People that have bought electric vehicles or have installed solar panels have become Energy Buying Heroes
  • People that have chosen not to buy Nickelback CDs have become Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes! Just kidding, but seriously…
  • People choosing to buy movies and music online, which saves all the resources that go into discs and packaging have become Waste Heroes!

With the examples I’ve used above, it’s pretty easy to see the good that was done in the conscious decision of what to buy or not to buy. But, when it comes to food, all the different food marketing campaigns and colorful labels telling us to buy healthy or buy delicious or buy all-natural or buy eco-friendly or buy humanitarian can make things really confusing for the average person. Of course, we want to eat healthy and environmentally friendly but how can someone see past all the marketing and know which foods are the best? While there isn’t one easy answer here, we can get at least some clarity by looking at a little bit of science. There has been some research done that compares different foods and what they take to produce versus what they yield in terms of nutrition. So for starters, look at this table which compares the carbon footprint of various meats:

Food Carbon Footprint
Beef 18 kg of CO²e/kg
Pork 14 kg of CO²e/kg
Chicken 8 kg of CO²e/kg
Trout 4.81 kg ofCO²e/kg

With this table (derived from research conducted by Technology Center of Miranda de Ebro) we can clearly see which foods cost the environmentally most by producing the higher amounts of carbon (also known as an externality). A similar study by The WorldFish Center drew substantiating conclusions, determining that “from an ecological efficiency and environmental impact perspective, [aquaculture has] clear benefits over other forms of animal source food production for human consumption.”

Along these lines, if you look at the feed conversion rates and protein conversion efficiency rates, you’ll see similar trends:

Food Feed Conversion
Beef 31.7 kg of feed/kg edible weight
Pork 10.7 kg of feed/kg edible weight
Chicken 4.2 kg of feed/kg edible weight
Carp 2.3 kg of feed/kg edible weight

(Source)

Food Protein Conversion Efficiency
Beef 5%
Pork 13%
Chicken 25%
Carp 30%

(Source)

Now, look at this table which shows the foods with the highest protein per ounce (Source):

Food Protein
Beef 7 grams of protein per oz
Pork 7.25 grams of protein per oz
Chicken 8.6 grams of protein per oz
Fish 6.28 grams of protein per oz

All meats are strong sources of protein, which is a major nutrition requirement for us, but from the protein and feed conversion charts we can see that more inputs, like feed, must go into beef and pork to get a similar amount of protein delivered to our dinner plate. Let’s now look at the amount of cholesterol per ounce….

Food Cholesterol
Beef 16.67-26.67 mg per oz
Pork 16.67-26.67 mg per oz
Chicken 20 mg per oz
Seafood 10-166.67 mg per oz

…and fat per ounce

Food Fat
Beef 2-5 grams per oz
Pork 2-5 grams per oz
Chicken 1-3 grams per oz
Seafood 1-3 grams per oz

Based on this research, beef and pork not only tend to cost the environment more, but they also tend to be the least healthy for our bodies. Chicken and seafood tend to be healthier and more environmentally friendly making them the most efficient foods for us to consume. Personally, I am becoming a food Buying Hero, putting my money, literally where my mouth is and choosing chicken and seafood more often and reserving beef and pork for special occasions. If enough of us do this, not only will we be healthier, will our environment be cleaner, but we’ll also be sending signals to production centers and increased production will make it more affordable too!

Additional Resources:

  1. An analysis of the technical options in agriculture for reducing greenhouse–gas emissions and increasing sinks
  2. An Overview of the current scientific knowledge on the implications for fisheries and aquaculture of climate change
  3. Preliminary Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change on Fisheries and Aquaculture in the Pacific
  4. Blue Frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture
  5. ‘Carbon footprint’, a tool for the sustainability of aquaculture
  6. Another study that shows carbon costs for a variety of seafood
  7. Economic article that shows salmon’s relative efficiency