October 30, 2007

Cornell Looks at 'Agricultural Footprint'

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In yet another step toward making the campus more sustainable, the University has begun examining ways to permanently reduce its ‘agricultural footprint,’ or the amount land necessary to support human diets.
Christian Peters, M.S. ’02, Ph.D. ’07, a Cornell postdoctoral associate in crop and soil sciences, is currently working on research about the agricultural footprint. His research is dismissing the formerly held view that a vegetarian diet uses the least amount of land in New York. The benefit of this diet is that the land can sustain more people.
“The goal of our research was to improve understanding of how consumption of meat and fat influences a population’s requirements for agricultural land. We found that while adding meat to the diet generally increased the amount of land used to produce food, vegetarian diets did not always support more people. The reason for this apparent paradox is that livestock can produce edible food from resources that are inedible to humans, namely byproduct feeds, hay and pasture,” Peters said.
According to Peters, his research did not set out to find this ideal diet, but instead hoped to produce such answers for this area.
“In regions with climate and soils similar to those of New York State, the diet which feeds the most people would include small amounts of meat,” Peters said.
Benjamin Scott-Killian ’09, co-manager of Dilmun Hill Student Organic Farm, supported the relevance of a region-specific agricultural footprint.
“Since New York is especially suited for pasture land, producing meat [here] is more efficient than in other places,” he said.
Miriam Goler ’09, president of Farm to Cornell explained the importance of the energy aspect of the agricultural footprint.
“When you feed grain to cattle, for instance, about 90 percent of the energy from the grain is lost. Another 90 percent of the energy from the cow is lost when we eat the beef. If we skipped the cow as the “middleman,” less energy would be lost, and we would need to grow less grain to feed our population,” said Goler, who advises eating fruits and vegetables to utilize the maximum amount of energy.
Unfortunately, New York cannot fully support this maximizing of energy.
“Much land in New York State is not suitable for growing row crops. For example, if land is too steep, erosion and soil loss will be a major problem if you try to till it. However, some of this land may be suitable for growing forage crops, which can be used to graze livestock. Therefore, if we use this land in its most productive way, we need to be eating some meat in order to maximize the number of people that are fed,” Goler said.
“Cornell can offer more vegetarian options in the cafeterias, dining halls and other eateries on campus,” Peters said. “In our model, only diets containing two or four ounces of cooked meat per day overlapped with vegetarian diets. In contrast, the per capita level of meat consumption in the United States is about six cooked ounces per day. Given the current level of meat consumption, the simplest way to reduce our ag footprint is to eat less meat.”
Jennifer Gardner grad, president of the New World Agricultural and Ecology Group, suggested that Cornell continue to increase the amount of food served on campus from local and regional farmers to reduce the footprint.
Doug Lockwood, an administrator at Cornell Dining, described Cornell’s current efforts in food sustainability.
“23 percent of produce comes from local growers,” Lockwood said. Lockwood defined “local growers” as those whose farm within 100 miles of campus, or within New York State.
Gardner believes that Cornell has an obligation in its commitment to sustainability.
“As the state Land-Grant University our mission as prescribed by Congress is ‘to promote a sound and prosperous agriculture and rural life;’ that is, to serve the local farming community,” she said.
“As a large institution, Cornell has a lot of purchasing power and can make a significant impact on the local economy by buying products from local farmers. While many people consider the Land Grant mission as referring to research, teaching and extension, it makes sense that it should also extend to being conscious of how the campus food system impacts the farmers we serve.”