Nitrogen Working Group

When we think about climate change many of us point to carbon as the culprit, however, nitrogen pollution has equally devastating effects. The main contributors to nitrogen pollution is the food and energy sectors. This pollution causes a cascade of negative impacts: smog, acid rain, coastal dead zones, biodiversity loss, climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and more. In 2013, the Board of Visitors updated the carbon reduction goal to also include a nitrogen footprint reduction goal, to reduce emission by 25% by 2025. Food production and consumption directly affect all three environmental issues. Students should better understand the impact of their food consumption patterns and take action to reduce it.

From November 9th – 24th , food items in the Clark Café will be labeled with a “sustainability rating” that reflects the amount of carbon, nitrogen, and water used in the production of the labeled item.

How are carbon, nitrogen, and water used in food production?

  • Carbon pollution is produced in food production from agricultural emissions (e.g. methane emissions from manure), factory emissions, and transportation emissions.
  • Nitrogen is used primarily in the form of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Not all of the fertilizer is taken up by the plant and some runs off into the environment. At each stage of the production process, more nitrogen is lost to the environment. Fossil fuel combustion and food waste also produce reactive nitrogen.
  • Water is used to irrigate crops, to feed animals, and in the production of fuel.

Each food product is given a sustainability rating of 1-5, with 1 being the least environmentally-friendly and 5 being the most environmentally-friendly.

To calculate the footprint of a product, the weight of constituent items were collected and multiplied by impact factors (units emissions/kg product) for carbon, nitrogen, and water (Leach et al., in preparation). These were summed to get the total carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints for the product. Products were ranked from 1-5 for carbon, nitrogen, and water, respectively. The product was given a combined score (max 15, min 3). For example, the Vegetable Combo had 0.34 kg C/kg food, 3.85 g N/kg food, and 0.28 m3 water/kg food; this translates to 4, 4, and 3 rating for C, N, and water, respectively, and an overall rating of 4.

How to Improve the Sustainability of Your Food Choices

  • Buy local, organic, and/or sustainably-sourced food whenever possible.
  • Increase plant-based foods and reduce consumption of animal products, which generally have high carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints. If you do choose meat, consider that generally fish < poultry < pigmeat < beef in terms of environmental impact.
  • Consume no more than the recommended amount of protein: 0.36 grams per pound of body weight per day for adults, or about 50 g per day. Consider vegetable-based protein sources.
  • Reduce food waste
  • Bring your own water bottle or reusable mug

What is UVA doing to improve food sustainability?

  • Food will be incorporated into strategies for meeting the carbon, nitrogen, and water footprint goals, particularly the nitrogen footprint reduction goal, which relies heavily on changes in the food sector.
  • A Sustainable Food Strategy Task Force was launched in 2015.
  • The Food Collaborative (includes faculty, students, staff, and community members) promotes research, teaching, and community engagement.
  • There are many food-related CIOs on Grounds, such as Greens to Grounds, DECAF, UVA Community Garden, Hereford Community Garden, and more!
  • U.Va. plans to reduce the amount of waste generated by 50% below 2014 levels by 2030
  • U.Va. plans to track and increase environmentally conscious purchases, like this!