SF Food Choices Panel: Environment

Amid ever-growing evidence of climate crisis, many of us are examining our consumption habits in an effort to be more environmentally conscious. However, detailed information is hard to come by, and we find ourselves making assumptions, both true and false, about how our food choices impact the climate. At Clover Sonoma’s panel on the Nutritional and Environmental Impact of our Food Choices, we brought experts together to discuss these issues, giving climate-conscious consumers the tools to make educated decisions as they weigh dairy and plant-based products.

During the panel, Jenny Lester Moffitt, California State Board of Food & Agriculture Undersecretary, explained that dairy farming is frequently misunderstood and oversimplified. In fact, grazing livestock can have a positive impact on its surrounding ecosystem. Grazing, she informed us, removes roughly 9 million tons of biomass such as dry grass that would otherwise have choked native vegetation and started fires. Because some areas of California “can produce 11,000 pounds an acre of non-native grasses,” grazing is vital to opening that land up, improving habitat and reducing fire hazards. 

Furthermore, Dr. Frank Mitloehner of the UC Davis Department of Animal Science explained that the role of livestock in carbon emissions is more complex than methane production alone. Range land where livestock graze can actually benefit the climate. “On the one hand, grass-finished animals will produce more methane,” Mitloehner said. “But, the upside is that range land sequesters carbon. It sucks up carbon and stores it in the ground. We don’t yet know exactly how much, but we know it’s vast.” He went on to add that, if managed responsibly, “agriculture and forestry in this country sequester more carbon than they emit.” Well-managed small farms where livestock graze freely are then both more humane and more environmentally conscious than their large factory farm counterparts.

Later in the discussion, Moffitt added another layer to the issue. While dairy farms account for only 1.3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions according to the EPA, solutions already exist to address that carbon footprint. As they become more widespread, the environmental impact of dairy farming will continue to change. Moffitt introduced the panel to Dairy Digesters, technology that takes “existing dairy manure lagoon systems . . . captures the methane that is coming off of that and puts it into a generator to create renewable electricity.” Digesters are already being used to produce renewable transportation fuels and are, “an opportunity for agriculture to be part of the [climate] solution.” In the future, consumers choosing between milk and non-dairy beverages may need to consider methane gas not only as an agent of climate change, but also as a renewable resource. 

These environmental topics were just a few of the many discussed during the Environmental and Nutritional Impact of our Food Choices event. After a fruitful conversation, our panelists agreed that the decisions facing consumers are more complicated than ever before. Clover CEO Marcus Bennedetti addressed this point when he explained why the panel was so important to him. An open dialogue, he said, “gets as much information across as we can to consumers,” so that despite overwhelming and often mixed messages, “they can make their own decisions.” 

When conscious consumers head to the grocery store, they can and should consider the broad environmental impact of their food. While it is true that dairy farms produce methane gas, they also help to maintain rich productive ecosystems, provide sources of renewable energy, and sequester carbon from their air. With this information, we hope consumers will realize that caring for the environment does not demand an all or nothing approach. In a healthy and sustainable diet, there is room for both dairy and plant-based foods. 

If you are interested in hearing more about how dairy and plant-based foods impact the environment, check out our full panel discussion on YouTube.