Could carbon labels steer consumers towards environmentally friendly food?

Researchers have tested this front-of-pack information on consumers to see how it influences their purchases.

8 January 2019
animal welfarelabellingmeatsustainability
image credit: Getty Images

Trends predictions for 2019 pointed towards consumers looking for more sustainable food options, from Whole Foods’ nod towards more faux meat snacks to Mintel’s spotlight on circular consumption. But how can consumers judge which foods are better for the environment?

Research recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that consumers have a blind spot, tending to underestimate the amount of greenhouse gases associated with growing and producing different foods.

But scientists from the US and Australia believe the introduction of a front-of-pack carbon label that is easy to understand could steer consumers towards more environmentally friendly food choices. The label would mimic the role of nutrition information which is used to help people pick healthier options.

While strategies to tackle climate change have largely focused on technological solutions like greater energy efficiency and renewable resources, changing diets could also have a major impact, added the researchers.

The food system contributes 19-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is similar to US household electricity use. This comes from areas like agriculture, refrigeration and transport, and fertilizer used to grow feedstock. An estimate of the average weekly diet of an Australian family showed that replacing beef with duck and fish would reduce food-related emissions by 30%.

Researchers believe a carbon label could help direct consumers to sustainable food choices, whether it’s reducing red meat consumption or eating seasonal fruit rather than items flown in from other countries.

Invisible issues

For the study, 512 US consumers were asked to estimate the greenhouse emissions of 19 common foods. Respondents were asked to use a measurement based on a 100-watt incandescent light bulb turned on for one hour as the equivalent to producing 100 greenhouse gas emission units.

It found energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were significantly underestimated. For example, a serving of beef produces 2,481 emission units, but the average estimate in the study was around 130 emission units.

“Consumers were relatively insensitive to the difference in energy consumed and GHG emissions of most foods (for example fruits, vegetables, nuts, milk and cheese) but were relatively more sensitive to the difference in energy consumer and GHG emissions between red meat (for example beef) and non-meat items (for example, potatoes). Nevertheless, they underestimated red meat by the widest margin,” the researchers wrote.

While we eat food every day, its production and distribution processes are largely hidden, they added.

“Unlike appliances, which have energy labels, are plugged into an electrical outlet, emit heat, and generally have clear indications of when they are using electricity, the release of greenhouse gases in the production and transportation of food is invisible,” the scientists wrote about the study in an article in The Conversation.

image credit: Camilleri, Larrick

Carbon choices

To test a carbon label, the scientists created one based on existing designs for nutrition, fuel economy and energy efficiency, but with two key features.

“First, it translates greenhouse emissions into a concrete, familiar unit: equivalent number of light bulb minutes. A serving of beef and vegetable soup, for example, is roughly equivalent to a light bulb turned on for 2,127 minutes – or almost 36 hours,” the scientists said.

“Second, it displays the food’s relative environmental impact compared with other food, on an 11-point scale from green (low impact) to red (high impact). Our serving of beef and vegetable soup rates at 10 on the scale – deep into the red zone – because beef production is so emissions-intensive.”

The label was then tested on 120 people, who were asked to purchase three cans of soup from a selection of six, with half of them beef and the other half vegetarian. Everyone was given price and standard nutritional information, but half of the group was also presented with the carbon labels. Those in the carbon group preferred to go veggie.

“It may be that a carbon label serves as a decision signpost, reminding consumers of their values and then directing them to options most consistent with those values,” wrote the scientists.

Animal welfare

Meanwhile, the RSCPA has called on the UK government to implement mandatory method of production labelling for all animal products, an idea that was flagged by the government in a report into plans for farming post-Brexit.

RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said it would enable shoppers to make informed buying choices based on how farm animals are kept, adding there was strong consumer demand, citing a 2017 YouGov survey that showed eight out of 10 UK shoppers would be encouraged to buy higher welfare if there was consistent labelling.

“At the moment, products can feature rolling green fields, happy animals or fictional farm names on the labels of their animal products, regardless of the conditions those farm animals were raised in, which risks consumers believing they are buying a higher welfare product when in fact they may not,” Bowles said.

“Mandatory method of production could support farmers who are already producing to higher standards, but have no means to differentiate their product in the market due to current ambiguous labelling terms. It would also reward those farmers who are prepared to invest in higher welfare systems and help create a brand of quality British food as the Government negotiates new trade deals and market access post-Brexit.”

Add to Idea Book

"Could carbon labels steer consumers towards environmentally friendly food?"
Choose Idea Book