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Economic impact, water & carbon footprint of 400,000 wheels of Parmesan

May 23, 2012

Round stacks of cheese stored on shelves in factory warehouse. Photo: kgtoh (Kheng Guan Toh) via Bigstock images.

One of my newest favorite tweeps to follow is Jonathan Bloom @WastedFood, who tweets regularly about sustainable food issues. Yesterday he sent a link to a video showing 400,000 wheels of cheese that had been lost in a 6.0 magnitude earthquake north of Bologna in Italy on Sunday morning.

I love aged parmesan, and so I was saddened by loss of the cheese itself, but what I found most devastating was what this means in terms of the people who produce it, as well as the environmental impact. My grandfather and uncle each had vineyards in Argentina, and I remember hearing the story of a Christmas celebration when an unexpected hail storm brought an end to festivities as the family tried in vain to salvage a year’s crop of grapes. This earthquake served as a powerful reminder to me of our extreme vulnerability to environmental forces.

So what is the impact when we lose 400,000 wheels of Parmesan?

Economic stats:

  • I’ve seen conflicting reports on the economic value. This GlobalPost article pegs the loss at $300 million, while this NYDailyNews (AP) article has a more conservative estimate that total agricultural losses from the earthquake (including cheese) are estimated at $254M from the earthquake.

Social stats:

  • The work represented 2 years of work for 7 cheese producing companies according to the NYDailyNews article. A devastating loss even if insurance covers some or all of it.

Environmental stats

  • The NYDailyNews article makes a reference of an 86 pound wheels of cheese. Assuming that all 400,000 that were lost were this size, it equals 34,400,000 lbs of cheese, or 15,603,577.5 kg of cheese.
  • According to stats on Waterfootprint Network’s Product Gallery, 1 kg of cheese has a water footprint of 5,060 litres/kg. That means that it took 78.95 billion litres of water to produce this amount of cheese. If an Olympic swimming pool holds 2.5 Million litres, that’s 31,581 of them.
  • This report out of the University of Wisconsin states that “The life cycle GHG emissions of a kilogram of hard cheese is about 8.8 kg CO2-eq, similar to driving a car 20 miles or leaving an incandescent 100 w lightbulb on for one hour.” That pegs the carbon emissions related this at 137,311,482 kg of CO2e, equivalent to driving a car 312,071,550 miles. If the average distance to the moon being 238,857 miles, that’s like driving there and back 653.26 times.

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