Food Snark

Analyzing the Impact of our food’s Nitrogen Footprint

September 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Almost everyone who is aware of the environmental term ‘carbon footprint’ is aware of the impact that it has on our climate, but there’s whole new angle that the environmentally conscious must take into consideration as well.

It’s known as the “nitrogen footprint”, and is the primary cause for oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones’ in our oceans.  How this happens is that with the rain in spring, an excess of nitrogen (and phosphorus) is transported by the rivers into the ocean, thanks to fertilizers in farmhouses and even human or animal waste.

What ensues is the process of eutrophication where bacteria consume most of water’s oxygen when feasting on the algal bloom (broadly classified as ‘phytoplankton’) that is attracted this abundance of nitrogen that impacts the coastal regions most.

Due to this lack of oxygen, crabs, shrimp, clams, entire mussel reefs, fish and other animals in our oceans die or leave for ‘greener pastures’, if you will. And since fertilizers are a major contributor to this process, researchers have also been looking into the “eutrophication potential” in cultivating (or rearing) different types of food along with the “carbon footprint” as well.

Remarkably, red meat topped both lists in having the greatest effect on the climate and the coastal ecosystem, as eating a pound of beef releases 22 lbs of greenhouse gases and 2.5 oz. of nitrogen pollution.

And while cereals and carbohydrates were at the bottom of both lists, dairy products which almost have no carbon footprint had a eutrophication potential that was second to beed, releasing 1.1 oz. of nitrogen pollution for every pound.

And even though, the nitrogen footprint study has just started, more and more people are realizing that analyzing just the ‘carbon footprint’ isn’t sufficient.