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November 28, 2009

Cheeses.So, I’m planning a big holiday shindig, and I was going to put out my usual enormous cheese-and-cracker spread. Its the safest of dishes when you consider the number of vegetarians, lactate intolerants, and gluten allergies that will be visiting my house. Food issues I can accommodate. If you can’t handle cat and dog hair, you’re SOL.  

And then I get the question from my dearest, sweetest, hippiest friend. “What’s the environmental impact of cheese?”

Thank you for having the answer. And for acknowledging that cheese is certainly one of life’s great pleasures. But after a little bit of research, there’s no doubt that cheese of any type—pasteurized or not; made from the milk of cows or goats or sheep—has a significant impact on the environment compared with other food products. So by all means while I enjoy my spread, it might be worth scaling back a bit on the size for the sake of the planet.

It turns out that cheese may do as much harm to the environment as some kinds of meat. Based on Swedish figures, the production of a 1.5-ounce serving of cheese might be expected to produce around 16 ounces of carbon dioxide equivalent. Depending on which study you consult, a 2- to 3-ounce serving of cooked, boneless chicken meat should yield between 4.3 and 31 ounces of CO2-equivalent (PDF). (You’d get about the same number of calories from each.)

Why is cheese so resource-intensive? It’s all about the milk-bearing animals, my friends. And methane. Feed production also contributes to global warming, and animal waste has implications for both water and air quality.

What about the species? Generally speaking, sheep cheese is going to be worse for the planet than cow or goat varieties. A sheep might emit twice the amount of methane as a cow or a goat, per unit of milk produced. An exact comparison would require more information about the husbandry practices being used in each case, though—and studies from New Zealand indicate that some sheep are less gassy than others.(why is it so hard to stop giggling about this? cause I’m an immature toddler, that’s why).

Finally, the less processing a cheese undergoes, the easier it’ll be on the planet. All things being equal, younger cheeses are more energy-efficient than older ones, because of the electricity required to keep cheeses at a cool, steady temperature as they age. Likewise, soft cheeses will tend to be greener than hard ones, since the latter usually require more milk, more extensive aging processes, and longer cooking at higher temperatures.

And for my lovers of all things Mediterranean, feta cheese as one of the best options in terms of processing impacts and notes that chèvre, brie, and Camembert are also pretty green. Same goes for American’s top-selling cheese (mozzarella), since it doesn’t require any aging

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