Environment and Society in a Changing World

Food Choice and Policy


Food Choice and Policy

Given all that we have learned about food and agriculture, what should we do about it? Which foods should we as individuals choose? Which policies should societies implement? These questions represent individual and collective action on food and agriculture.

Food Choice

Many factors are relevant to which foods we should choose for ourselves. We may want proper nutrition, tasty meals, convenience, and low cost. We might want the cultural meaning associated with certain foods, such as foods from certain parts of the world or certain religious traditions. We might also care about the impacts our foods have on other people, on the environment, and on livestock animals. There may be other relevant factors as well.

One way or another, which foods we should choose is an ethical question. The more altruistic we are, the more likely we are to care about the impacts of our foods on others, and vice versa if we are selfish. If we are speciesist, then we are unlikely to care about impacts on livestock animals. If we are anthropocentric, then we are unlikely to care about impacts on the environment, except to the extent that the environmental impacts affect people. If we care about distributive justice, then we may choose foods that leave more food available for others.

Sustainable Food Consumption

Like the term sustainability, sustainable food consumption has been defined in various ways. In general, we define sustainable food consumption as choosing food which is good for health and the environment. For food consumption to be sustainable, it has to do “more and better with less”: we obtain more nutrition from food while minimizing the use of natural resources and environmental impacts. Sustainable food consumption is often exemplified by a locavore who eats locally grown or produced food. But a word of caution: food grown or produced locally, or bought from farmer’s markets, is just as likely to be grown using unsustainable and environmentally harmful inputs like chemical pesticides and fertilizers as food at the grocery store. And while local food may travel fewer food miles (i.e., the distance food takes on its way to consumers from producers), its production may generate just as much greenhouse gas as food produced further away. BUT, there is one sustainability advantage that eating locally grown produce from a farmer's market does offer: you can meet the farmer and ask them how they run their farm. This allows you to be an informed and (more) sustainable consumer. Who would you ask at the grocery store?

Recall the concept of commodity chains from Module 1. Now, think about where you can place yourself on the food supply chain and why concerns about where food comes from and how it gets to your plate matter. To fully embrace the idea of sustainable food consumption, changing what we eat is just as important as changing where it is from. In the Livestock's Long Shadow section of this module, we looked into the environmental impacts of consuming meat and dairy products and explained why a plant-based diet leads to a more sustainable environment.

The following video highlights the hidden environmental and social costs of hamburgers. Here are some questions to consider as you watch the video (7:52):

  • Are contemporary food production and consumption sustainable?
  • Does geography matter to food availability and food choice?
  • Are there other steps or efforts toward sustainable food consumption?
  • Can sustainable food consumption be promoted through creating social norms?
Click for a transcript "The Hidden Cost of Hamburgers" video.

SARAH TERRY-COBO: It's time to confront a major threat to our global environment. Cows. Yep. Turns out that worldwide, livestock are a major contributor to greenhouse gas pollution, right up there with cars, planes, and trains. And at the rate we're producing beef worldwide, emissions from cows, along with other harmful practices in beef production, threaten to mess up our climate, land, and water big time.

On average, Americans eat three times more meat than people in other countries. From the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, beef consumption per person doubled. The US is now the largest beef producer in the world. Our beef industry is a powerhouse worth $74 billion a year and providing millions of jobs.

Today, more and more Americans are choosing chicken and pork, even tofu. But much of the meat we eat is still beef. Let's look at an All-American food, the hamburger. On average, we eat about three burgers per week. So let's see if all 313 million Americans eat three burgers per week, that's 156 burgers per person per year. Altogether, that's more than 48 billion burgers every year.

A quarter pounder at a fast food joint costs about $3 or $4. That's pretty cheap. But what we don't pay for at the counter we end up paying for in other ways. What are the hidden costs?

First of all, cows take up a lot of space. Worldwide, livestock use 30% of the entire land area. That's counting pastures and land use to grow grain for feed. We use about eight times as much land for feeding animals as for feeding humans. And in places like Brazil, acres of forest are still being cleared for livestock, which creates pollution and also removes a perfect sponge for absorbing carbon dioxide. And did someone mention water? It takes about 1800 gallons of water to make a single pound of grain-fed beef. That's about four times the amount for chicken and more than 10 times the amount for a pound of wheat.

Why does it take so much land and water to feed cows? Well, for one thing, cows eat a lot. During the first six months, a calf eats and eats and eats. When it's about 700 pounds, it's sold at auction, usually to a feedlot, which is like a very crowded cow city. At the feedlot, the cow continues to eat and eat and eat. At most feedlots, cows eat a mixture of soy and corn.

This whole feed system's pretty new. Before the 1970s, cows ate mostly grass. Then Congress passed a farm bill that changed everything. The government started paying farmers to grow feed crops like corn and soy and also helped pay for more fertilizer. So voila. Now corn is in everything from sodas to cereal. And most of the country's 90 million cows now get corn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unfortunately, cows are built to digest grass. Corn can make them bloat with gas, and cows make a lot of gas.

This is no joke. See, cows are ruminants, meaning they create methane gas when they digest food. Chickens and pigs don't. Methane has 21 times more climate changing power than CO2. In America, cows produce more greenhouse gas than 22 million cars per year.

America's cows create about 500 million tons of manure in a year. That's three times as much as we humans do. Cow manure also creates nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the global warming effect of CO2. Cow manure is responsible for 2/3 of all the nitric oxide pollution in the world.

There's another source of nitrous oxide in a cow's lifecycle-- fertilizer. We Americans use about 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to grow feed for our cows. When runoff from fertilizer and manure flow into rivers and then to the ocean, they create huge algae blooms, which suck the oxygen out of the water and leave dead zones where no life can survive. Anyway, back to the feedlot.

Once the cows are fattened up, they head to the slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses create about 30 million pounds of contaminants a year, mainly nitrates and ammonia used to disinfect meat. From the slaughterhouse, the beef is shipped to big processing centers where California beef is mixed with Texas beef and Colorado beef. One burger patty can contain the DNA of more than 1,000 cows. That means a single case of E. Coli could easily spread to thousands of burgers. Trucking all that beef around creates pollution too.

This isn't an exact science. And the numbers vary depending on how the cows were raised. But a single quarter pounder clocks in at about 6 and 1/2 pounds of greenhouse gases. That might not sound like much, but with Americans eating three burgers per week, that's more than 158 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, about the same amount as 34 coal-fired power plants.

It's not the cow's fault. It's a system we've created to mass produce beef that's the problem. Too many burgers take a toll on the environment. They can take a toll on your body, too.

This is the recommended daily diet. And this is how most Americans actually eat. We eat too much meat, grains, fat, and sugar, and not enough fruits and vegetables. Many studies show that eating too much red meat can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and even diabetes.

The hidden costs add up. One research group figured the cost just in greenhouse gases, water for growing cow feed, and health care at about $1.51 for every burger. Multiply that by the 48 billion burgers Americans eat every year, and that's more than $72 billion. We don't pay for it at the store or fast food joint, but we pay for it in other ways.

So what can we do? Well, we don't have to give up meat to change our impact. Cutting out just one burger per week would remove as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking your car off the road for 350 miles. If all Americans ate no meat or cheese one day a week, it would have the same climate change prevention effect as taking 7.6 million cars off the road for one year.

And while it's more expensive, grass-fed beef does less damage to the environment. Even the smallest choices make a big difference to the environment, to our neighbors, to our health. In the US, people are starting to eat less, but the rest of the world is eating more. Just imagine what if all 1.3 billion people in China eat three burgers a week like we do? Could our planet keep up?

Credit: Reveal

Food choice, climate change, and sustainability are closely related. Fundamental changes in food consumption and diet are essential for achieving sustainabilty. Just as you must develop your own intuition about ethics, you must decide for yourself which foods you think you should choose. This module aims to help inform your choices, not to make them for you.

Food Policy

Which food (and agriculture) policies society should choose also is an ethical question, one that members of society must come together to decide. Here are some major issues in food policy.

Agriculture Subsidies

Many countries, in particular the wealthier ones, heavily subsidize agriculture. In the United States, agricultural subsidies are about $15 billion per year, or roughly 0.5% of the total federal budget. Corn receives the largest subsidy, about $4 billion. These subsidies help keep agriculture yields high and food prices low. The subsidies significantly decrease the risk of famine and keep countries more self-sufficient in food, which can be important if any geopolitical instabilities occur. On the other hand, the subsidies can cause excessive amounts of food production, leading to increased environmental damage and obesity. The low prices can also hurt farmers in countries that don’t have subsidies. Poor, small-scale farmers in poor countries are put at a great competitive disadvantage by the subsidies of rich countries, despite the fact that labor costs are much lower for the poor. Finally, the money used for subsidies could go to other public or private purposes if the subsidies weren’t there. While lobbyists from the agriculture industry fight hard to keep subsidies, there is much controversy and debate about whether the subsidies should be maintained.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

If you live in the United States, you have probably eaten GMOs on a fairly regular basis. Humans have been modifying the genetic makeup of organisms since the early days of agriculture, simply by selectively breeding plants and animals with desirable traits. Over time, this shifts the genetic makeup of the plants and animals. However, in recent years humans have learned how to manipulate genetics more aggressively, including by inserting genes from one organism into that of another. For example, plants have been genetically designed to be resistant to certain pesticides. The design work is often performed by the same company that sells the pesticides. GMOs are controversial for several reasons and recent years have seen a growing debate over labeling for genetically modified products. Their long-term health and ecological effects are poorly known with no adequate testing, though short-term health effects are generally negligible. Once the new genes are released into fields, they can spread widely and are almost impossible to contain. Finally, the genes are often patented by the companies that design them, giving the companies extensive legal power over certain types of life. World regions are divided on the merits of GMOs. In particular, Europe has been much more hostile to them than the United States, leading to major international trade disputes.

Food vs. Fuel

As concerns mount about the sustainability of energy resources, there are more and more efforts to produce fuels from farmed plants, known as biofuels. Brazil has been particularly active in producing biofuels, in part because its land is well-suited to growing sugarcane. Brazil and the United States produce about 90% of the world’s biofuels. But biofuels are controversial because they result in reductions in the amounts of food available. This controversy is especially large because, in general, it is the rich who can afford the fuel and the poor who need the food. The thought of some people going hungry so that other people can have biofuels for their cars is a difficult ethical debate for many people involved in the issue.


The overall sustainability of human society is a major policy issue, and the sustainability of agriculture is too. Some key aspects of sustainable agriculture have already been discussed. The use of fossil fuels and fossil water cannot be sustained as these resources are depleted. Agriculture systems with low yield stability are vulnerable to disturbances in which yields are not sustained. Other important aspects of sustainable agriculture include agriculture's connections to climate change and biodiversity, which will be discussed later in the course. A lot is at stake with sustainable agriculture: if our agriculture system cannot be sustained in some form, then we will end up without food to eat, and we will face catastrophic declines in the human population and civilization.