Assessing Practices

At present, there are Environmental Impact Assessments for projects and Strategic Environmental Assessments for programs, plans and policies but neither of these address the collective impact and scale of human practices or behaviors which seem to be driving many of the pressures on the environment. In the spirit of alliteration, I propose that there be another category of Environmental and Social Assessment in addition to projects,plans, policies and programs, which relates to ‘practices’. Critiquing a society’s accepted practices and behaviors in a meaningful way could help bring attention to the large amounts of resources used to sustain a convenience-oriented and consumptive lifestyle.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2043 (UNDEP), and the fact that there exists both widespread hunger and obesity, a highly relevant example is our present practices related to food, including production methods, irrigation and fertilization, preferences, preparation and preservation/refrigeration, transport and food wastage, to name a few.

What prompted my concern was the discovery that the family-owned McCain Foods Ltd is pushing to develop the market for frozen foods in India (Nolen, 2012). How could we assess the environmental impact if most of India accepted frozen food as a lifestyle? A lifecycle assessment of the packaging and an EIA for the production facilities would not address the energy demand for freezers in each household, the energy consumption of stores and refrigerated vehicles for transport, the manufacture and disposal of appliances, etc. This concern is in no way meant to imply that those in poorer countries should not have the conveniences that we in wealthier nations have. This issue serves to highlight that there are complex and far reaching environmental impacts in all of our behavior and practices. Instead of blindly or aggressively pushing our accepted practices on other cultures for the economic gain of a few, it is necessary to acknowledge the detrimental environmental, social and health impacts of our often overly consumptive and convenience-oriented lifestyle and practices.

Since our western scientific knowledge paradigm prefers to accept quantifiable realities, a metric for measuring the environmental and social impacts of our practices and behaviors would be useful. Social impacts can be particularly challenging to define, despite there being indications of extreme effects. For example, as a result of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1980s and 1990s, which created unaffordable dependencies on agricultural technologies (fertilizers and pesticides), farmer suicides in India soared. Many others felt their only option was to sell their kidneys and body parts to survive (Patel, 2007 p25).

Environmental impacts of our practices, however, could be addressed or quantified more easily in the concept of embedded energy. For example, widespread food waste, either through system inefficiencies or social behavior, deserves a proper environmental assessment. There are differences in food waste between affluent and poorer nations. Although data is limited, it suggests that in developing countries, food loss is higher immediately after harvest, while in affluent nations food losses are greater after purchase (Parfitt et al, 2010).


Food wastage is a multidimensional problem. The production demands include fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, harvesting, the energy requirements of processing, the production of packaging and its destiny in the landfill, the energy to transport as well as the construction/maintenance of road networks must be considered when assessing the impact. One study estimated that food wastage accounts for approximately 300 million barrels of oil per year in the US (Hall et al, 2009). Another article purports that the energy in wasted food is greater than the energy available from other efficiency and energy procurement strategies, including bio-fuels and drilling for oil in the outer continental shelf (Cuéllar & Webber, 2010).

Cultural and societal behaviors and practices should undergo impact assessments to properly critique their complexity and relationships to resource use. Analyzing embedded energy is one way to assist in understanding the environmental pressures of our practices.


Cuéllar, A. & Webber M.E. (2010), Wasted Food, Wasted Energy: The embedded energy in food waste in the United States, Environ. Sci. Technol., 44 (16), pp 6464–6469
DOI: 10.1021/es100310d Publication Date (Web): July 21, 2010 (accessed 13/03/13)

Hall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC (2009) The progressive increase of food waste in America and its environmental impact. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940 (accessed 15/03/13)

Nolen, S. (2012) McCain hopes breakfast item will thaw India’s resistance to frozen food, The Globe and Mail, New Delhi, Published May. 22 2012

Parfitt, J, Barthel, M. and Macnaughton, S.(2010), Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2010, 365
doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0126 published 16 August 2010

Patel, R (2007) Stuffed and starved: the hidden battle for the world’s food system, HarperCollins Publisher Ltd, Toronto, ISBN 978-1-55468-001-5

UNDEP Population Division, Population Estimates and Projections Section, World Population Prospects, 2010 Revision, (accessed 13/03/13)


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