Cheese: Better For Your Car Than Your Health?

Cheese lovers around the world may cringe after reading this article.  Your love for all things cheese, especially coupled with a smooth wine and great company, may directly threaten your environmental values and ethics. Conversely, the same cheese said to be bad for the environment may be the next best thing for the future of alternative fuel in eco-friendly vehicles.

First things first however, let’s get to the bottom of this cheese issue.  The Environmental Working Group published a report last week detailing the findings of a study into the lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions for common foods and vegetables.  Topping the charts for the highest gas emissions was lamb coming in highest with 39.3kg (86.4lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten.  Beef ran second highest with 27.1 kilos (59.6lbs) of C02e eaten.  And surprisingly, trailing third, cheese with 13.5 kilos (29.7lbs) CO2e per kilo eaten.  The study only focused on cow’s milk cheese, however, another study found goat’s milk to be equal to cow’s milk cheese and sheep’s milk cheese faired much worse.  How can this be many of you may be wondering?  It seems the majority of these high emissions can be traced back to the production phase.

In order to understand cheese’s contribution to global warming, we must take a look at the production process.  Emissions come from the use of fertilizers and pesticides, used to grow grain and feed, which in turn produces gas from the stomachs of ruminant animals and also from their manure.  The entire growth process contributes heavily to the  contamination of the environment’s natural resources, due to feed production, waste handling, packaging and transportation, causing a warming effect; However, it is the fertilizer and pesticide production that has the greatest impact on the environment, in large part because of the nitrous oxide that is released during the application process.  Factor in the nitrous dioxide and methane released from the manure, which also releases pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics and metals into the environment and you have a recipe for disaster of sorts on the environment.

Compounding the problem and adding to cheese’s carbon footprint are the refrigeration and shipping processes.

According to the study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, emissions are much higher in air-freighted food compared to domestic, specifically the report states “cheese imported by air has a 46 percent larger footprint than domestically produced cheese.”  Based on these figures, the EWG  recommends buying cheese locally from organic or grass-fed pastured animal farms whenever possible.  Going organic not only helps wage the battle against global warming, because grass fed operations are better for the environment using less energy-draining methods and better animal management  leading to improved quality of  feed growth, but it is also extremely beneficial for your health by reducing your exposure to toxins from pesticides that accumulate in animal fat.

In an article taken from the Washington Post, Steve Zeng, a dairy researcher at Langston University in Oklahoma, “singles out feta cheese as one of the best options in terms of processing impacts and notes that chevre, brie and Camembert are also pretty green.  Same goes for American’s top-selling cheese-mozzarella.”

While all of these harmful toxins and natural gas emissions weather bad for cheese production and consumption, cheese just may be the next best thing to fuel the future of eco-friendly vehicles.  The Lotus Exige 270E Tri-Fuel was showcased at an eco-rally organized by the Prince of Wale’s environmental initiative, Start, in London last week.  This sports car is the first prototype capable of running on an ethanol fuel made from wine and whey, which is a byproduct of cheese.  In case you run out of cheese while on the road, no need to fret, this specialized vehicle also takes conventional gasoline and methanol, a fuel produced from taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

Dr. John Fieschko, a Syracuse researcher and executive director of the Central New York Biotechnology Research Center,  just won a $400,000 state grant to investigate the potential of cheese fuel, according to a story in the Times-Picayune. Fieschko plans to convert whey protein, a leftover waste from cheese production, into ethanol. The whey will come from the Kraft Foods cream cheese factory in Lowville, N.Y.

It’s hard to believe that something as tasty as cheese could come with so much environmental baggage.  Taking a look on the bright side, however, the American dairy industry is making strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent over the next ten years.  By adjusting cow’s diets and installing methane digesters to convert manure into electricity, the dairy industry is well on its way to reducing the harmful effects of cheese on our environment.

But no matter how you cut it, cheese will always have its place on the tables and possibly the gas tanks of millions, so it’s up to us to enjoy and consume it responsibly.  Cheese!

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