There’s an underlying message behind those who slam commercial agriculture for its high-volume, high efficiency production model. They believe the world would be a more environmentally friendly place if we could return to the idyllic days of old, when all cattle roamed on grassy hills, people shopped at local markets supplied by local farmers and organic wasn’t organic, it was simply the way we were.

But a paper presented by Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, at the 71st Cornell Nutrition Conference held in Syracuse, N.Y., indicates that the green solutions mentioned above are not as environmentally friendly as anti-commercial-ag groups like Oxfam, Environmental Working Group and Organic Exchange would have us believe.

Take, for example, the belief that returning to a local economy where goods are produced and sold locally would save huge amounts of petroleum because the goods would not have to be shipped from far distances.

Closer examination, however, tells us that efficiency trumps down-home simplicity. For example, Capper says that one dozen eggs, transported several hundred miles to a grocery store in a tractor-trailer that can carry 23,400 dozen eggs is a more fuel-efficient, eco-friendly option than a dozen eggs purchased at a farmers’ market (4.5 times more fuel used) or local farm (17.2 times more fuel used).

“The high-capacity vehicles used in modern transportation systems improve productivity, allowing food moved over long distances to be highly fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly compared to locally grown food,” Capper explains.

Another example is pasture- or grass-fed meat, promoted to be more eco-friendly than conventionally produced beef. But Capper’s study indicates that the time needed to grow a grass-fed animal to slaughter weight is nearly double that of animals fed corn. And energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound increase three-fold in grass-fed beef.

Also, finishing 9.8 million grass-fed animals would require an extra 60 million acres of land. That’s not the direction we need to go if the world is to feed an additional 3.5 billion people by 2050.

Organic groups argue that greenhouse gas emissions per cow have increased in modern times under modern methods. But Capper points out that greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk are actually 63 percent lower today than in the 1940s.

Capper adds that in 2007, the United States dairy industry produced 8.3 billion more gallons of milk than in 1944, but due to improved productivity, the carbon footprint of the entire dairy farm industry has been reduced by 41 percent over that time period.

The desire to protect the environment is admirable, notes Capper. But the bottom line is that there is a reason why today’s commercial agricultural models work — they’re highly efficient.

“Consumers might think they are making the 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 more efficient, technology-driven, conventional methods,” Capper said.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com