Scroll down to get an in-depth look at the human and environmental impacts of the food industry.
Your daily cup of coffee might be your favorite part of the morning, but have you ever wondered where your coffee comes from?
Coffee is the second largest commodity in the world, behind oil. It is a profitable industry, but companies often take more than what the farmers get. Coffee farmers receive an average of only “10 percent of the retail price of the product” (Lights). Furthermore, there is a lack of transparency in the supply chain that can lead consumers to question where the products actually come from.
One of the largest environmental issues in the coffee industry is the amount of water it takes to produce. The Water Footprint Network estimates that around 140L of water is used to produce a 125 mL cup of coffee. In addition, there are concerns regarding the higher demand for agricultural land and how it relates to coffee bean production.
What do coffee labels mean?
Fair Trade: focuses on environmental and workplace standards
USDA Organic: certification on organic foods, and focuses on the growing process
Rainforest Alliance: requires 40% shade grown coffee, and focuses on sustainable practices and working conditions
*the term “shade-grown” is seen to be a more environmentally sustainable form of growing coffee
Le Chien, Popo. “Coffee beans2.” Wikimedia Commons, 19 Apr. 2017,
“Latte Macchiato with Coffee Beans New.” Wikimedia Commons, 22 Nov. 2008,
“Developing a Sustainable Coffee Economy.” International Coffee Organization – Developing
a Sustainable Coffee Economy, http://www.ico.org/sustaindev_e.asp.
Lights, Zion. “Coffee and Its Impact on People, Animals and the Planet.” One Green Planet,
One Green Planet, 29 Oct. 2018, http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/coffee-and-its-impact-on-people-animals-and-the-planet/. “National Coffee Association.” NCA, http://www.ncausa.org/Sustainability.
Plant Based Meat
There has been fast growth of meat alternatives this past decade. Whether it be for the environmentally conscious or health conscious, or animal welfare there is a growing demand for this market. Within the meat alternative market, there are two main categories: whole muscle meat and plant based meat. Restructured meat products are those that imitate meat products, while whole muscle meat aims to fully resemble animal muscle through the use of technology (Bridgeman). For example, restructured meat would include meatballs and burger patties, while whole muscle meat would include a chicken wing or drumstick.
Animal agriculture provides 20 percent of the food supply, while using around 77 percent of the agricultural land around the world. This demonstrates a lack of efficiency within the system, at a cost to the environment. Studies also show that when compared to traditional meat, plant based meat production uses up to 90 percent less emissions (Bridgeman). However, the lack of access to meat alternatives poses an issue for the market. Products such as ‘Beyond Meat’ and ‘Impossible Meat’ are often priced higher than conventional meat, and are not yet widespread across stores, allowing them to only be consumed by a limited demographic.The introduction of the Impossible Whopper and the Carls Jr Beyond Burger show significant growth in the plant based meat market (Tugend). As this market grows, will we see a replacement of the meat industry in the future?
Beyond Meat. s3-prod.crainsnewyork.com/beyond-meat.jpg.
Bridgeman, Laura. Plant-Based Meats Are Better for Your Health and the Environment. 11 Dec.
Hall, Shannon. “These Plants Can Replace Meat-but Will Doing So Help the Environment?”
Scientific American, Scientific American, 8 Aug. 2019, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/these-plants-can-replace-meat-but-will-doing-so-help-the-environment/.
Tugend, Alina. “Is the New Meat Any Better Than the Old Meat?” The New York Times, The
New York Times, 21 Sept. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/21/climate/plant-based-meat.html.
van Vliet, Stephan, et al. “Plant-Based Meats, Human Health, and Climate Change.” Frontiers,
Frontiers, 22 July 2020, http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00128/full.
The soybean industry has seen significant growth following World War 2 and the boom of industrialized agriculture. There has been a 15x increase in production since the 1950s, and the consumption rate has increased 200 million tons since the 1970s (Boerema). Argentina, Brazil, and the United States produce around 80% of the world’s soybeans (Soy).
The versatility of the crop is a key reason behind the high consumption rates of soybean. It can be processed into food products, animal feed, fuel, and even cooking oil. Soybeans represent around 27% of vegetable oil around the world (Soy). However, there are many concerns over the rate of soybean production and its impact on deforestation.
Multiple studies point to soy farming in the Amazon being a key cause of deforestation. In addition, soil erosion along with the use of unsustainable water irrigation systems are a growing cause for concern. The industrialization of the soybean industry also has “pushed small farmers and communities off the land and encouraged exploitation of workers” (Soy).
United Soybean Board. Soybean Field. 10 July 2013, upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Soybean_Field_%289620657129%29.jpg. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021.
United Soybean Board. Soybean Harvest. 18 Oct. 2005, upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Soybean_Harvest_%2810059855935%29.jpg.
Boerema, Annelies, et al. “Soybean Trade: Balancing Environmental and Socio-Economic
Impacts of an Intercontinental Market.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 31 May 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4887031/.
“Soy.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, http://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/soy. “Soy Agriculture in the Amazon Basin.” Global Forest Atlas, Yale University, globalforestatlas.yale.edu/amazon/land-use/soy.
Food Waste During the Holidays
Food waste is a major issue within the United States. More than 70 billion pounds of food waste reaches landfills each year.The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food is one of the most common materials found in landfills, and is “third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States” (“Avoid Food Waste”). It is estimated that over 30% of the food grown is never even consumed. Data shows that households are a major source of food waste, and that household food waste increases by around 25% during the holidays (Pearson).
Here are a few things you can do to prevent food waste and help your community this holiday season.
- Donate unopened, non-perishable food items to a local charity.
- Utilize your freezer- it’s a great place to extend the life of extra food.
- Get creative with your leftovers.
- Check out this tool to help you plan your menu.
- Safely distribute leftovers to friends & family.
“EPA Encourages Americans to Avoid Food Waste Over the Holidays.” EPA, 25 Nov. 2020,
Food Waste & The Climate Crisis. 20 Nov. 2019,
Pearson, Pete. “How to Reduce Food Waste This Holiday Season.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund,
The Impact of the US Corn Industry
Corn is the number one crop produced in the United States. In 2019, 97.1 million acres of corn was planted. However, a small percentage of corn produced is consumed by humans (Flannery).
Around one third of the crop is used in feed for livestock. This number is dependent on supply and price of corn. Another one third of the crop is used for ethanol- which is often used as a biofuel additive for gasoline. The remaining one-third of the crop is processed for humans to eat (Capehart and Proper). Given the versatility of the crop, it is found in a wide range of foods: Cereal, chips, soda, and medicine are just a few examples of what corn is processed for.
Although corn produces a variety of products, there are critiques on the production system as a whole. The system is efficient in producing the crop and maintaining a steady price, but not efficient in feeding people. Corn is grown as a monoculture- the practice of repeatedly growing one crop on the same land. This form of intensive farming is known to deplete the land of its nutrients (Anderson). As a crop, corn requires high levels of water and fertilizer, which draws concern over the long-term future of this crop. (Hobson and Barton).
Want to learn more about corn and its relationship to the environment? Check out this podcast!
The New Fred Meyer on Interstate on Lombard. 23 Dec. 2004,
Rolling Corn Fields at Harvest Time. 3 Oct. 2015,
Anderson, Leigh, et al. “Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Technologies.” Evans School
Policy Analysis and Research, University of Washington, 17 Mar. 2010.
Capehart, Tom, and Susan Proper. Corn Is America’s Largest Crop in 2019. 1 Aug.
Flannery, Tim. “We’re Living on Corn!” Michael Pollan, 28 June 2007,
Hobson, Jeremy, and Brooke Barton. “The Environmental Risks Of Corn Production.” Here and Now, National Public Radio, 11 June 2014.
History of Corn in the US
In 2019, over 90 million acres of corn were produced in the United States- around 69 million football fields. Unsurprisingly, corn is currently the number one crop grown in the United States (Capehart). Historic investment in agriculture and corn subsidies from the government have allowed large-scale production of corn, while keeping the corn prices low.
US government investment in farming can be traced to the early 1900s when looking at the modern history of US agriculture. In order to boost food production, the USDA invested heavily in irrigation projects, food transportation infrastructure, and dam construction (Plumer). However, corn production truly advanced when scientists created new strains of corn to produce higher yield and withstand extreme weather conditions.
Corn receives the highest amount of subsidies than any other crop (Federal Farm Subsidies). Subsidies are a way in which the government encourages farms to produce more of one product, regardless of their market price. The government then makes up the difference for any lost revenue. Subsidies ensure corn prices remain low and will remain consistent throughout the year, regardless of circumstances.
Corn Field in Cayce, Richland County, SC. 29 June 2020,
Corn Husks. 9 Sept. 2007,
Fahler Corn Field. 4 Aug. 2019,
Capehart, Tom, and Susan Proper. Corn Is America’s Largest Crop in 2019. 1 Aug.
“Federal Farm Subsidies: What the Data Says.” USAFacts, USAFacts, 29 Sept. 2020,
Flannery, Tim. “We’re Living on Corn!” Michael Pollan, 28 June 2007,
Plumer, Brad. A Brief History of U.S. Corn, in One Chart. 28 Apr. 2019,
Milk and Environmental Impacts
Which milk is best for the environment?
Dairy: Dairy milk has the largest environmental impact when compared to non dairy milks. According to a 2018 study, dairy milk produces three times more carbon emissions compared to plant based milk. Furthermore, dairy milk requires nine square meters of land per liter produced.
Almond: In general, the production of almond milk produces less CO2 emissions than dairy, but requires more water compared to its non-dairy counterparts. The average almond requires around 12 liters of water to produce.
Fun fact! California is the world’s largest almond producer.
Soy: The environmental impact of soy milk is low compared to dairy. One liter of soy milk requires around 297 liters of water to produce, and emits around 0.975kg of CO2. However, soy milk uses more land than its non-dairy counterparts.
Oat: Similar to soy milk, the environmental impact of oat milk is low compared to dairy. Oat milk production uses around 80% less land than dairy milk, and less water as well. One liter of oat milk emits around 0.9k of CO2.
Bogueva, Diana, and Dora Marinova. “Which ‘Milk’ Is Best for the Environment? We Compared Dairy, Nut, Soy, Hemp and Grain Milks.” Phys.org, Phys.org, 14 Oct. 2020, phys.org/news/2020-10-environment-dairy-nut-soy-hemp.html.
Chavez, Veronica. “What’s Better For You and the Planet – Almond Milk or Cow’s Milk? Here Are the Facts.” One Green Planet, One Green Planet, 16 May 2019, http://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/whats-better-for-you-almond-or-dairy-milk/.
Clingham-David, Jaia. “Which Non-Dairy Milk Is Best for the Environment?” One Green Planet, One Green Planet, 27 Oct. 2020, http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/which-non-dairy-milk-is-best-for-the-environment/.
Held, Lisa Elaine. “Which Plant-Based Milks Are Best for the Environment?” FoodPrint, 18 Feb. 2020, foodprint.org/blog/which-plant-based-milk-is-best-for-the-environment/.
Oakes, Kelly. “Which Milk Alternative Should We Be Drinking?” BBC Future, BBC, 10 Feb. 2020, http://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200207-which-milk-alternative-should-we-be-drinking.
You might be a chocoholic, but have you ever wondered how your chocolate gets made? Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, but there are many steps from bean to bar.
The overall growing process often requires intense manual labor. Once the cocoa seeds are removed from the pod, they follow a long supply chain in which the beans move through intermediate sellers (Mussman). This process can be difficult for the farmers who often make less than $1/day. Because this work is their sole source of income, the farmers are largely powerless to fight the inhumane work conditions. Also, children often work alongside adults. According to the International Cocoa Initiative, children in cocoa farming communities lack access to education, must participate in unsafe tasks, and suffer frequent injuries (Cocoa Farming: An Overview).
You might be thinking, well, what can I do? As a consumer, you can make an impact like this:
- Educate yourself.
- Start a conversation to spread awareness of the issue.
- Learn your labels. “Fair trade” and “rainforest certified” are best for ethically produced chocolate. Click here to see certifications of different brands.
If you have the means, these simple steps help support a more sustainable future. Ultimately, more significant changes are necessary to deal with the systemic issues of cocoa production.
Watch: Netflix Series Rotten Season 2 Episode 5, “Bitter Chocolate”
“The real story of chocolate is a supply chain where our affordable luxury is paid for in misery and exploitation.”Rotten 2.05, Netflix
“Cocoa Farming: An Overview.” International Cocoa Initiative, cocoainitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/ECA_-_2011_-_Cocoa_Farming_an_overview.pdf.
“FAQ: What Is the Difference Between Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade Certification?” Rainforest Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, 4 Sept. 2020, http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/faqs/difference-between-rainforest-alliance-certified-fair-trade.
Mussman, Jonathan. “Bitter Chocolate.” Rotten, Netflix, 4 Oct. 2019.