Friday, September 18, 2009

Forgive me Lord, for I have drunk a glass of milk

There is gathering momentum for product labels to be required to state their “carbon footprint”. So that consumers can feel guilty about contributing to climate change and perhaps do something about it. Nothing illustrates how difficult it is to calculate the environmental impact of daily life , than the attempt to label a milk carton with its carbon footprint. When it comes to environment impact, nothing is what it seems.

Now, what can be the carbon footprint of a carton of milk. After all its as natural a product as can be.

On first thought nothing at all. A little later it strikes us – yes the act of transporting it and packaging it surely has a carbon impact. And what about refrigeration – another significant carbon impact. Slowly milk is starting to look a little less saintly.

But wait a minute. Maybe we should revert to the old Indian habit of getting fresh milk from a cow or buffalo milked in front of your house. Then no transportation, refrigeration and all that carbon spewing stuff.

But what about the stuff the cow eats to produce the milk. Now cattle feed is grown somewhere (carbon spewing fertilizer eeks !) manufactured somewhere and transported. All this adds to the carbon. Right we’ll tell the milkman; no artificial feed for your cow ; it can graze on the natural grass, or more likely, eat paper if you are a self respecting city cow in India.

But it so happens that the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emission in the supply chain of milk is not in the feed; not in the carton; not in the transportation; not in the refrigeration. Its in bovine flatulence. No, I’m not joking. It’s a real fact. Cows produce so much methane that Arthur C Clarke has written in one of his books that if an alien civilization approached earth, the first signal that there is life on this planet would be from the chemical footprint of our atmosphere caused by bovine flatulence.

If you still don’t believe me, click hereand go to the bottom of the article.

Now the ahem, noxious output of the cow is governed by the nature of the feed. Natural grass feeding may actually be more harmful to the environment. Back to square one.

Just goes to show that nothing is simple when it comes to the environment. Popular fads may actually cause more harm than good – see an example I wrote about sometime ago here. What is needed is a comprehensive research and clear advice from a global organization of high credentials. Focus on the big ticket items only. And then all of us can act on them. And stop making people feel guilty on petty stuff.

Cheers – gulp down your glass of milk.