March 2, 2017

Bread isn’t good for the Environment

Bread isn’t good for the Environment

Bread is sure tasty and filling, but it isn't all that environmentally friendly. Photo Credit: Flickr

Loaves of bread. Don’t we just love them? We love slices of bread buttered; we love them slathered with jam or honey; we love them dipped into some fine hot curry.

But our daily bread comes at a cost – and not only to our waistline but to our environment as well.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have calculated the environmental impact of producing a single loaf of bread from the farm all the way to the bakery shelf. Turns out the process leaves quite a carbon footprint when it is scaled up to the millions upon millions of loaves of bread that are consumed worldwide daily. In the UK alone, some 12 million loaves are sold daily.

“For a start, to make loaves on an industrial scale, you’ll need powerful milling and kneading machines and a huge oven, heated to 230℃ or more. This uses a lot of energy. The flour, yeast and salt must also be shipped in and, finally, the finished loaves are delivered to stores – all in trucks powered by petrol,” explains chief research advisor Peter Horton, one of the researchers who have published their study in the journal Nature Plants.

Fertilizers help plants grow but they cost us environmentally. Photo Credit: Argus Media

More than half of the environmental impact of bread’s production process comes from cultivating the wheat used to make loaves. Much of that is in turn attributable to the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which accounts for 43% of greenhouse gas emissions and dwarfs all other processes in the supply chain. Those emissions themselves arise from the energy that is used to make the fertilizer and from the nitrous oxide that is released when the fertilizer is broken down in the soil.

“For crops to grow big and fast, they need nitrogen, usually through fertiliser. It is the key ingredient of intensive agriculture,” Horton explains. “Without fertiliser, either we produce less food or we use much more land to produce the same amount, at greater economic and environmental cost. That is the fix we are in.”

The solution: reducing the use of fertilizer by recycling animal and human waste as manure.

“We could also harness the best of organic farming by, for example, using ‘green manures’ or rotating crops with legumes that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil,” the researcher says. “Precision agriculture can be used to only apply fertiliser where and when it is needed, using new sensor technologies including drones to monitor the nutritional status of soils and plants.” He adds: “And we can even develop new varieties of crops that are able to use nitrogen more efficiently by, for instance, harnessing fungi in the soil or getting soil microbes to release less nitrous oxide.”

Either that, or we could change our diet by relying less on environmentally harmful staples like bread. Or better yet: we can do both.

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