Like every American, I’m trying to do my part to help the environment. I try to save gas by cutting down on trips around town. I turn off lights around my house when my kids leave them burning. And I try to recycle everything possible.

But I’ve noticed that the biggest push to help the environment seems to be going on at the dinner table. Many in the so-called “foodie” movement say consumers can do their part to help the environment by turning away from foods produced on modern farms. They say that old-fashioned production methods, with food raised close to home on very small farms is really the best thing for Mother Nature. And consumers tend to instinctively believe it. They figure that the old-fashioned and small-scale farming practices used by our grandparents and great grandparents, must have been friendlier to the environment than today’s highly efficient food production methods.

Trouble is, those instincts are probably off-base, according to Jude Capper, a dairy sciences researcher at Washington State University. When the environmental impact of food production is calculated per unit—say per gallon of milk or per dozen of eggs—the older production methods just don’t stack up, Capper said in a recent presentation.

“Consumers might think they are making responsible, virtuous food choices when, in truth, they are supporting production practices that consume more natural resources, cause greater pollution and create a larger carbon footprint than the more technology-driven, conventional methods,” Capper said.

One example, the researcher said, is grass-fed beef. There is a widely-held perception that it is friendlier to the environment than conventional grain-fed beef. However, Capper notes, it takes nearly twice as long to raise an animal to slaughter weight when fed only grass. Those extra months mean the animal is consuming more energy and producing a lot more greenhouse gasses.

Capper also takes issue with those trying to assign “food miles” to products as a measure of environmental friendliness. Some food activists have advocated food miles as a way to make consumers aware of the distance that food travels from production to final consumption.

Capper doesn’t buy it. “This simplistic approach fails to consider the productivity of the transportation system, which has tremendous impact on the energy extended per unit of food.”

In the end, consumers have the right to choose what foods they want to buy. But, as this research shows, just because food is produced an old-fashioned way doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for the environment.

You can read Capper’s research on food production and the environment here.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.