It isn’t easy drinking green
The word green—formally a noun, now typically an adjective—is applied to just about anything possible (green dog food!). Opinion polls and the American tradition of the focus group both have found the populace expressing more concern for the environment, hence a deluge of green labeled products in the last few years, including alcoholic drinks—most notably beer and wine. If one wishes to indulge but doesn’t wish to have the guilt of wrecking the environment added to the inevitable stupid-crap-people-do-when-drinking, what should you look for?
Organic drunkenness versus conventional
A drink that uses organic ingredients is a good for the planet right? Suprisingly there really isn’t a lot of hard research (read published, peer reviewed studies in scientific journals) on this subject. It’s probably most accurate to say under certain circumstances, it may be less bad on a short time scale or better on a longer time scale. Which is better for the planet, conventional versus organic agriculture is—all advertising by the organic industry aside—extremely complicated. “Better for the planet” for the purposes of this article means less polluting, less non-renewable energy consumption, less damaging to the soil, less production of greenhouse gases, and less negative impact on biodiversity.
Organic agriculture is easier on the environment than traditional production methods in a some ways. Organic methods eschew the use of chemical fertilizers, using animal or plant based products for this purpose instead. This has several benefits but also some drawbacks. Manure based fertilizers maintain or even improve soil fertility with much less pollution—chemical fertilizers, because of their chemical composition, easily leach into groundwater, lakes, or rivers which can cause oxygen sucking algal blooms that kill everything. Organic agriculture certainly comes out on top in the pollution department.
The creation of chemical fertilizers involves the use of a non-renewable ingredient—natural gas. However, animal and plant based fertilizers can also use quite a bit of energy—for transportation—and can produce the greenhouse gas methane during their composting and cow fart stage. Manure fertilizers also contain less nutrients by weight than chemical fertilizers. Also added to the what-is-greener equation: organic fields can produce less crop per area than traditional methods, meaning more land is needed to get the same yield. Depending on the location, methods, and crop in production, organic versus traditional agriculture may come close to similar levels of energy use but this is obviously, highly variable. In a 22 year study assessing the differences in energy use between conventional agriculture, organic animal manure agriculture and organic plant manure (legume) agriculture, researchers found the organic systems used 28 and 32% less energy than the conventional system (Pimentel et al. Bioscience 2005 55:7).
Greenhouse gas production in both types of agriculture comes from the combustion of fossil fuels required to run all the equipment needed (including transportation), fertilizer production (including the production of animal and plant based organic fertilizer), and soil processes that occur during production. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). Organic production generally involves increased tillage or tractor usage which is damaging to the soil and releases CO2 into the atmosphere. However, using manure as fertilizer replenishes soil carbon and can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Like I said, complicated. Which presumably explains why I had such a hard time finding scientific studies that compare the net greenhouse gas emissions of organic versus traditional agriculture. Since I could not find such a study after quite some time looking, I’m going to hazard a guess. Since organic agriculture can use less energy than traditional, I’m going to say overall it probably also produces less greenhouse gases—but that’s not a given. A qualified maybe here.
Biodiversity is the number of different species (plant, animal, bacteria, fungi, you name it) in a specific area or habitat. Higher numbers are assumed to be good, but there is significant debate in the science of ecology—as opposed to “environmentalism” which is something else—whether this is the case. In general parlance and most certainly in marketing materials for organic products however, the more creepy crawlies = good, less = bad is the dominant thinking. Organic agriculture wins hands down in this category. A metastudy (a study of many different, related studies) published in 2005 (Biological Conservation 113), found land under organic agriculture had significantly higher biodiversity than conventional agriculture in most cases. The difference was attributed to more animal friendly cultivation methods such as the non use of pesticides and herbicides in organic agriculture.
Although there isn’t really enough scientific evidence to satisfy me (meaning multiple studies done with a variety of crops in a variety of places in both organic and conventional paired plots for several years), it does seem safe to say choosing beer or wine with organic ingredients is probably more green than the same products made with conventionally grown ingredients. And if you like bugs, organic is definitely better. However, because it’s a complicated calculation, consuming alcohol made from organic ingredients most likely isn’t as green as people think it is. If you choose a beer or wine that is organic but shipped from a long distance instead of locally, the pollution and greenhouse gas production from the transportation alone may negate the environmental benefits of organic growing methods.
There’s been a big upsurge in interest in local eating and by extension, drinking. Eating and drinking local means exactly what it sounds like—going out of your way to purchase and consume locally made products. The idea here is to reduce transportation effects on the environment. Now living in the Front Range of Colorado makes this easy—there are many local craft breweries and quite a number of wineries in the state on the Western Slope. However, if you live somewhere that’s not too hot for growing either grain or grapes, drinking locally will be significantly more difficult. However, anytime you can reduce transportation required for the creation, distribution, and sale of an item, the more green it will be. AND, walk to the liquor store/pub instead of drive, that will also increase the green quotient.
Of course, the ultimate local drinking is to grow the ingredients and make the beer or wine yourself. Grapes are fairly easy to grow in many parts of the U.S., but growing enough of your own barley can be a bit of challenge. Hops however, are very easy and can even be grown in containers. Compost the leftovers and you will really be able to feel environmentally smug.
Sustainable Brewers and Wineries
Another option for green drinking is purchasing products from breweries or wineries using sustainable methods or technologies in production. New Belgium brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado is well known for their sustainable, green practices such as their use of wind powered electricity and using more efficient brew kettles. As far as wineries go, many wineries are switching to organic production or biodynamic production—which is essentially the same as organic with some ridiculous new age mysticism thrown in for good measure.
Greener Drinking Tips
- Walk to the bar/liquor store
- Buy beer or wine made with organic ingredients
- Grow your own ingredients and make your own beer or wine
- Buy from local breweries or wineries
- Buy from brewers or wineries using green technologies
- Compost your vomit
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Credits and Links
I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!