Skip to main content

Nutrient density as a metric for comparing greenhouse gas emissions from food production

Abstract

Dietary Guidelines for many countries recommend that people should eat ‘nutrient dense’ foods, which are foods with a high nutrient to energy ratio; and that people should limit their intake of saturated fat, added salt or added sugar. In addition, consumers and environmentalists increasingly want their food to be produced with a low impact on the environment, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), yet agriculture is a major source of CH4 and N2O emissions, as well as producing CO2 emissions. Current research on GHGE from agriculture does not incorporate the nutritional value of the foods studied. However, the nutritional content of food is important, given the prevalence of malnutrition, including obesity (due to over-consumption of foods high in energy yet low nutritional density), and the negative health impacts they produce. This paper introduces the metric, emissions/unit nutrient density, and compares the results with three other metrics: emissions intensity (t CO2e/t product), emissions/t protein and emissions/GJ. The food products examined are wheat flour, milk, canola oil, lean lamb, lean beef, untrimmed lamb and untrimmed beef. The metric t CO2e/unit nutrient density was the preferred metric to use when examining GHGE from food production because it compares different types of products based on their nutritional value, rather than according to singular nutrients such as protein, or specific attributes such as product weight or energy content. Emissions/unit nutrient density has the potential to inform consumer choices regarding foods that have a higher nutritional content relative to the GHGE generated. Further analysis would be useful to develop and expand the use of this metric further.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Abbreviations

CO2e:

Carbon dioxide equivalents

GHGE:

Greenhouse gas emissions

MFP:

Milk fat plus protein

RDA:

Recommended dietary allowance

References

  • Aiking H (2011) Future protein supply. Trends Food Sci Technol 22:112–120. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2010.04.005

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ball B, Johnson ER (1989) The influence of breed and sex on saleable beef yield. Aust J Exp Agric 29:483–487. doi:10.1071/ea9890483

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beauchemin KA, Janzen HH, Little SM, McAllister TA, McGinn SM (2010) Life cycle assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from beef production in western Canada: a case study. Agric Syst 103:371–379

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beauchemin KA, Kreuzer M, O’Mara F, McAllister TA (2008) Nutritional management for enteric methane abatement: a review. Aust J Exp Agric 48:21–27. doi:10.1071/ea07199

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boersema J, Blowers A (2011) Changing our eating habits by playing the cultural trump card. J Integr Environ Sci 8:243–252. doi:10.1080/1943815x.2011.640037

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Browne N, Kingwell R, Behrendt R, Eckard R (2013) The relative profitability of dairy, sheep, beef and grain farm enterprises in southeast Australia under selected rainfall and price scenarios. Agric Syst 117:35–44. doi:10.1016/j.agsy.2013.01.002

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Browne NA, Eckard RJ, Behrendt R, Kingwell RS (2011) A comparative analysis of on-farm greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural enterprises in south eastern Australia. Anim Feed Sci Technol 166–67:641–652. doi:10.1016/j.anifeedsci.2011.04.045

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Buchner B, Fischler C, Fitoussi J-P, Monti M, Riccardi G, Ricordi C, Sassoon J, Veronesi U (2010) Double pyramid: healthy food for people, sustainable food for the planet. Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Rome

    Google Scholar 

  • Casey JW, Holden NM (2005a) Analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the average Irish milk production system. Agric Syst 86:97–114. doi:10.1016/j.agsy.2004.09.006

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Casey JW, Holden NM (2005b) The relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and the intensity of milk production in Ireland. J Environ Qual 34:429–436

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • CCC (2010) Life cycle analysis of canola biodiesel. Canola Council of Canada, Winnipeg

    Google Scholar 

  • Centre for Design at RMIT and Life Cycle Strategies Pty Ltd (2010) Australian LCI database version 2010.5, data released in SimaPro LCA Software. Life Cycle Strategies, Melbourne

    Google Scholar 

  • Chan KY, Bowman AM (1995) Degradation of Australian vertisols after conversion from native grassland (Astrebla lappacea) to continuous cropping in a semi-arid subtropical environment. Trop Grassl 29:210–217

    Google Scholar 

  • Christie KM, Rawnsley RP, Eckard RJ (2011) A whole farm systems analysis of greenhouse gas emissions of 60 Tasmanian dairy farms. Anim Feed Sci Technol 166–67:653–662. doi:10.1016/j.anifeedsci.2011.04.046

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clark SG, Donnelly JR, Moore AD (2000) The GrassGro decision support tool: its effectiveness in simulating pasture and animal production and value in determining research priorities. Aust J Exp Agric 40:247–256

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Conway G, Toenniessen G (1999) Feeding the world in the twenty-first century. Nature 402:C55–C58. doi:10.1038/35011545

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cullen BR, Eckard RJ, Callow MN, Johnson IR, Chapman DF, Rawnsley RP, Garcia SC, White T, Snow VO (2008) Simulating pasture growth rates in Australian and New Zealand grazing systems. Aust J Agric Res 59:761–768

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DCCEE (2009) National Inventory Report 2007—Volume 1: The Australian Government Submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change May 2009. Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Canberra

    Google Scholar 

  • Descalzo AM, Insani EM, Biolatto A, Sancho AM, Garcia PT, Pensel NA, Josifovich JA (2005) Influence of pasture or grain-based diets supplemented with vitamin E on antioxidant/oxidative balance of Argentine beef. Meat Sci 70:35–44. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2004.11.018

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Drewnowski A (2005) Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score. Am J Clin Nutr 82:721–732

    Google Scholar 

  • Drewnowski A (2009) Defining nutrient density: development and validation of the Nutrient Rich Foods Index. J Am Coll Nutr 28:421S–426S

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Drewnowski A, Fulgoni V (2008) Nutrient profiling of foods: creating a nutrient-rich food index. Nutr Rev 66:23–39. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2007.00003.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Drewnowski A, Specter SE (2004) Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs. Am J Clin Nutr 79:6–16

    Google Scholar 

  • English W, Quinn H, Axam A, Tocker J (2008) Dairy Industry Farm Monitor Project 2007–08. Department of Primary Industries, Ellinbank

    Google Scholar 

  • Ericksen PJ, Ingram JSI, Liverman DM (2009) Food security and global environmental change: emerging challenges. Environ Sci Pol 12:373–377. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2009.04.007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • FSANZ (2011) NUTTAB 2010 Online Searchable Database. Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Canberra

    Google Scholar 

  • Fulgoni VL, Keast DR, Drewnowski A (2009) Development and validation of the Nutrient-Rich Foods Index: a tool to measure nutritional quality of foods. J Nutr 139:1549–1554. doi:10.3945/jn.108.101360

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gadema Z, Oglethorpe D (2011) The use and usefulness of carbon labelling food: a policy perspective from a survey of UK supermarket shoppers. Food Policy 36:815–822. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2011.08.001

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Garnett T (2011) Where are the best opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the food system (including the food chain)? Food Policy 36:S23–S32. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.10.010

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gilmour D, Ryan M, Swann C, Shambrook D (2009) Dairy Industry Farm Monitor Project 2008–09. Department of Primary Industries, Rutherglen

    Google Scholar 

  • Gonzalez AD, Frostell B, Carlsson-Kanyama A (2011) Protein efficiency per unit energy and per unit greenhouse gas emissions: potential contribution of diet choices to climate change mitigation. Food Policy 36:562–570. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2011.07.003

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • GrainCorp (2011) GrainCorp Harvest Report 10/11. GrainCorp, Sydney

    Google Scholar 

  • Hansen RG, Wyse BW (1980) Expression of nutrient allowances per 1,000 kilocalories. J Am Diet Assoc 76:223–227

    Google Scholar 

  • Hendrie GA, Ridoutt BG, Wiedmann TO, Noakes M (2014) Greenhouse gas emissions and the Australian diet—comparing dietary recommendations with average intake. Nutrients 6:289–303

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hopkins DL, Fogarty NM (1998) Diverse lamb genotypes—1. Yield of saleable cuts and meat in the carcass and the prediction of yield. Meat Sci 49:459–475

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hospido A, Moreira MT, Feijoo G (2003) Simplified life cycle assessment of galician milk production. Int Dairy J 13:783–796

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • IPCC (2006) 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Prepared by the National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme, Eggleston HS, Buendia L, Miwa K, Ngara T and Tanabe K (Eds). IGES, Japan

  • Johnson IR, Chapman DF, Snow VO, Eckard RJ, Parsons AJ, Lambert MG, Cullen BR (2008) DairyMod and EcoMod: biophysical pasture-simulation models for Australia and New Zealand. Aust J Exp Agric 48:621–631. doi:10.1071/ea07133

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kant AK (2000) Consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods by adult Americans: nutritional and health implications. The third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994. Am J Clin Nutr 72:929–936

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin C, Zhang Y, Tonelli C, Petroni K (2013) Plants, diet and health. Annu Rev Plant Biol 64:19–46

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MLA (1994) Greenhouse gas emissions from the Australian beef and sheep meat industries. Meat and Livestock Australia Ltd, Sydney

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore AD, Donnelly JR, Freer M (1997) GRAZPLAN: decision support systems for Australian grazing enterprises. 3. Pasture growth and soil moisture submodels, and the GrassGro DSS. Agric Syst 55:535–582

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • NHMRC (2003) Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra

    Google Scholar 

  • NHMRC (2006) Nutrient reference values for Australia and New Zealand including Recommended Dietary Intakes. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra

    Google Scholar 

  • NHMRC (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines: providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra

    Google Scholar 

  • Pradhan P, Reusser DE, Kropp JP (2013) Embodied greenhouse gas emissions in diets. PLoS ONE 8(5):e62228. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062228

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Riffkin P, Potter T, Kearney G (2012) Yield performance of late-maturing winter canola (Brassica napus L.) types in the High Rainfall Zone of southern Australia. Crop Pasture Sci 63:17–32. doi:10.1071/cp10410

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smedman A, Lindmark-Mansson H, Drewnowski A, Edman AM (2010) Nutrient density of beverages in relation to climate impact. Food Nutr Res 54:5170

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smil V (2002a) Nitrogen and food production: proteins for human diets. Ambio 31:126–131

    Google Scholar 

  • Smil V (2002b) Worldwide transformation of diets, burdens of meat production and opportunities for novel food proteins. Enzym Microb Technol 30:305–311. doi:10.1016/s0141-0229(01)00504-x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith P, Martino D, Cai Z et al (2007) Agriculture. In: Climate change 2007: mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Metz B, Davidson, OR, Bosch PR, Dave R, Meyer LA (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • Tocker J, Berrisford T (2010) Livestock Farm Monitor Project 2009–10. Department of Primary Industries, Ballarat

    Google Scholar 

  • Tocker J, Berrisford T (2011) Livestock Farm Monitor Project 2010–11. Department of Primary Industries, Ballarat

    Google Scholar 

  • Tocker J, Berrisford T, Gilmour D (2010) South West Farm Monitor Project 2008–09. Department of Primary Industries, Ballarat

    Google Scholar 

  • Tocker J, Swann C, Berrisford T (2009) South West Farm Monitor Project 2007–08. Department of Primary Industries, Ballarat

    Google Scholar 

  • Tukker A, Goldbohm RA, de Koning A, Verheijden M, Kleijn R, Wolf O, Perez-Dominguez I, Rueda-Cantuche JM (2011) Environmental impacts of changes to healthier diets in Europe. Ecol Econ 70:1776–1788

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • UNICEF (1998) The state of the world’s children 1998. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Upham P, Dendler L, Bleda M (2011) Carbon labelling of grocery products: public perceptions and potential emissions reductions. J Clean Prod 19:348–355. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.05.014

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • US DEPT HHS (2005) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington DC, USA. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/default.htm. Accessed 6 Nov 2012

  • Verge XPC, Maxime D, Dyer JA, Desjardins RL, Arcand Y, Vanderzaag A (2013) Carbon footprint of Canadian dairy products: calculations and issues. J Dairy Sci 96:6091–6104

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wells C (2001) Total energy indicators of agricultural sustainability: dairy farming case study. Ministry of Agriculure and Forestry, Wellington

    Google Scholar 

  • WHO (2013) Obesity and overweight. World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en. Accessed 8 Nov 2012

  • WHO, FAO (2003) Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a joint WHO/FAO expert consultation. World Health Organization, Geneva

    Google Scholar 

  • Williams SRO, Fisher PD, Berrisford T, Moate PJ, Reynard K (2014) Reducing methane on-farm by feeding diets high in fat may not always reduce life cycle greenhouse-gas emissions. Int J LCA 19:69–78

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zygouras G, Kornaros M, Angelopoulos K (2005) Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a tool for assessing the environmental performance of flour production in Greece. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Environmental Science and Technology, Rhodes Island, Greece

Download references

Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the University of Melbourne and the Future Farm Industries Cooperative Research Centre, as well as Dairy Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry under its Carbon Farming Futures, Filling the Research Gap Program. The authors are grateful for assistance provided by Anneline Padayachee.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Natalie A. Doran-Browne.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Doran-Browne, N.A., Eckard, R.J., Behrendt, R. et al. Nutrient density as a metric for comparing greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Climatic Change 129, 73–87 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1316-8

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1316-8

Keywords

  • Wheat Flour
  • Dietary Guideline
  • Nutrient Density
  • Recommend Dietary Allowance
  • Lean Meat