My 88-year-old father, who lives in Greenwich Village, is an observant man. I visited today and he asked me to look at two bottles of apple juice from his refrigerator.
He had paid $3.69 for a 64-ounce plastic bottle of Mott’s Apple Juice, the brand we’d had as kids. That’s about 5.7 cents an ounce.
A friend had bought for him a 48-ounce bottle of organic Apple & Eve apple juice for $8, he recalled. That’s 16.6 cents an ounce, nearly three times as much.
Well, I said, organic food generally costs more. And while $8 is a lot to pay for apple juice, his friend had bought it at Citarella, a fancy-shmancy grocery story nearby.
Then he pointed out something I hadn’t noticed. In tiny black print on the neck of the Apple & Eve bottle, it said “conc from Turkey bottled in the U.S.” The company evidently bought concentrate from apples grown in Turkey, presumably because it’s cheap, and shipped it halfway around the world.
Here’s the puzzle: Which bottle of apple juice is better for the planet?
I have no idea. I don’t know where Mott’s got its apples. I don’t know how much energy was used to ship and bottle either brand of juice. I don’t know how the workers were treated in Turkey, or how well the organic standard is enforced there. I don’t know about the plastic packaging. Your ideas are welcome.
I bring this up for two reasons. The first is to say that while the USDA Organic designation tells us about a single attribute of a product, it doesn’t get us very far I we want to understand the product’s full environmental impact. The best tool we have to do that is a developing science called Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA. It’s an attempt to take into account the raw materials, manufacturing, shipping, use and disposal of a product–the fertiziler used to grow the corn in a box of corn flakes, the chemicals and energy it takes to make a solar panel. The second reason to raise this question is to tease readers of this blog: I’ve recently become aware of a large-scale effort by business people and academics who are committed to working hard to solve puzzles like this one. More to come on that next week.