Has the focus of food labelling shifted from calories to carbon?
Since 2016 it has been mandatory for pre-packaged food and drink (F&D) to display nutritional attributes for the product. Consumers have become accustomed to read and digest the number of calories, fat, saturated fats, sugars, proteins, salt, and carbohydrates are present in the F&D product. Nutritional labelling has been a global success, supporting the adoption of healthier diets and lifestyles.
As nutritional labelling has become imbedded in our daily lives, has the focus of F&D labelling shifted from calories to carbon? The race to net zero is on. As companies and countries race to achieve sustainability targets, will carbon labels become a necessity? In the age of social media and climate activism, brands are under significant scrutiny to address their climate emissions, with the F&D industry at the centre of the debate.
The F&D industry and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
Food and drink production is responsible between 25-30% of global GHG emissions. The meat and dairy industry are responsible for approximately 15% of these emissions with food packaging representing a further 5%. The lifecycle of a F&B product from farming to consumption is a substantial global source of GHG emissions. Currently, the majority of solutions to GHG emissions has stemmed from technology that offer greater energy efficiencies through renewable energy production. The global F&D sector is highly complex. The production, packaging and transportation is highly extensive, with technological developments offering limited impact on GHGs emissions associated with our diet.
The key to tackling GHG lies in education and behavioural change. How can we ensure that the F&D sector and citizens engage in dialogue that reduce the demand for products with the greatest negative environmental impact. Initiatives have been presented for over a decade, including carbon and dietary taxes, however, most governments across the globe have shelved any long-term plans. The call for behavioural interventions within F&D purchasing has been vocal for many years. Nevertheless, consumers still have no metric to compare food product emissions. The call for labelling is gaining momentum and currently has been left to the private sector.
The importance of carbon labelling
Encouraged by consumer demand, the private sector has taken the initiative and begun using carbon labelling as a GHG solution and marketing tactic. Nutritional labelling is nothing new, but neither is ethical labelling. Groups including the Soil Association, Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance have all used organic labelling within their ethos. Shoppers expect a certain level of labelling. A survey conducted by FoodInsight found 80% of consumers look at the nutritional value of a product before consuming. It makes complete sense to include carbon emissions. Carbon Trust in a 2020 survey of over 100,000 people across Europe found 2/3 supported carbon labelling on products. Carbon and GHG labelling are clearly successful at getting shoppers to consider their environmental impact of their choices, with many consumers underestimating the GHG from the F&D they purchase.
Understanding our impact within F&D
Carbon labelling is an effective tool in communicating GHG emissions; however, significant work is required to connect to the public the issues at stake and the importance of such an initiative. Most consumers are unaware regarding the carbon impact of their food consumption habits. This is a major obstacle to diet change. Whilst the nutritional impact of food is widely educated in schools across the globe, very little is taught on GHG emissions derived from F&D. For carbon labelling to be fully embraced, education programmes and initiatives need to be launched. The BBC and Financial Times have carbon footprint calculators, but there are few and far between. Not only do these programmes calculate your emissions, but they also provide comparable context. For example, eating chicken once a day equates to having 512 showers of approximately 8 minutes.
The impact and factors of our dietary habits go far beyond methane produced by cattle. GHG emissions include key issues from deforestation, nitrogen use in fertilisers, refrigeration and transportation. A single food item’s environmental impact can range substantially. A kilo of asparagus grown in South America and shipped to the UK produces roughly 8.9 kilos of GHG emissions. Locally grown, seasonal asparagus produced only a fraction of that. It is no wonder why it is so easy to underestimate your carbon footprint from shopping habits.
Why is it so difficult to calculate emissions?
Despite many promises pledging to label F&D products, no major retailer has embraced the concept. Why? Apart from the access to reliable data across the entire supply chain of a F&D product, there are serious issues related to measurement. A standardised metric is urgently needed to prevent manufactures from greenwashing their products and accurately representing a true carbon footprint. There are hundreds if not thousands of different labelling metrics. Non-standardisation means there are variations in how similar data is shared. If emissions were to be classified on a per calorie basis, then broccoli emits more emissions that either pork or chicken. When emissions are classified by weight, the opposite is true.
A further challenge relates to seasonality. Fruit and vegetables grown in the UK may have a lower carbon footprint than imported alternatives, but if the former is grown in a greenhouse in the winter, its footprint is worse! A global standardised framework is desperately needed to tackle all the above challenges, alongside GHG emissions that cannot be avoided within the F&B sector. Currently only Denmark is committed to having a state-wide country climate label!
There are many reasons why carbon labelling needs to be outlined on F&D products, not least of which is our food system needs to transform its sustainability credentials. As we navigate a global climate crisis, carbon labelling will be a vital tool in addressing the transparency associated with F&D. Carbon labelling offers substantial upside to engage and educate consumers, whilst food retailers and manufactures cannot address their net zero targets without assessing their carbon footprints across the entire supply chain. Although challenges persist, a standardised carbon labelling approach will substantially address each consumer’s personal impact on the environment. The future of labelling has not yet shifted from calories to carbon, but it certainly will.