Food has become a central part of the environmental effort. Indeed, you may well be one of the many people who have tried to eat more locally grown food or even switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet, in an effort to reduce the impact of your carbon footprint.
In the last couple of years, there have been discussions over the idea of “carbon food labelling”, showing how much carbon it required to produce foods on the packets themselves to make consumers reconsider the impact of their eating habits on the environment.
In fact, some products that bill themselves as environmentally friendly already do this. Notable examples include oat milk producer Oatly, and meat-substitute company Quorn.
In principle, this sounds like a sensible idea. But, as with any change like it, there are also potential drawbacks.
So, read three pros and three cons of including carbon food labelling on UK products.
3 pros of carbon food labelling
- Might help consumers change their habits
First and foremost, adding carbon labelling might make people reconsider their eating habits.
Seeing that one food produces significantly less carbon than another could influence decisions at the supermarket, which in turn could have a positive environmental impact.
In practice, there is evidence to show that this works. According to a study reported by Forbes, labels including this information saw people improve the carbon footprint of their diets by 5%.
- May encourage businesses to reduce their footprints
As well as offering individuals the ability to change their habits and make eco-conscious choices, it may encourage businesses to consider reducing the carbon it takes to produce their food, too.
Consumers may start to boycott certain brands if they either have worse carbon credentials than their competitors, or even don’t publish the information on their products at all.
This could force food producers to look at ways of making their products or supply chains eco-friendlier to keep a hold of their customers.
- Could show a range of different environmental metrics
There are other factors beyond just carbon produced that add up to determine whether a product is environmentally friendly or not. For example, water use in food production is a serious issue, as is how much land is needed to rear animals or grow certain crops.
By having carbon food labelling, it may pave the way towards the inclusion of other metrics that help consumers make even more informed, environmentally friendly choices.
Cons of carbon food labelling
- Would require consensus on how to measure carbon in food production
A drawback that carbon food labelling would face is in having consensus of the information that food producers are required to provide. In other words, the way the figures are calculated must be consistent to be comparable.
Carbon emissions could come from various parts of the production process, whether that’s in the actual rearing of animals and growing of crops, cleaning and processing the food for sale, or the transportation of food from one place to another.
Doing this would require a great deal of time, expertise, and expenditure. According to Forbes, Quorn began working with the Carbon Trust in 2012 to collate data surrounding company carbon emissions – yet Quorn only started including the information on its packaging in June 2020.
Clearly, this is a long, convoluted, and potentially expensive process with many moving parts. It will likely take some time before there’s an agreed measurement in place for how this would work.
- It’s hard to compare across foods
Just as it would be to compare across businesses and processes, it would similarly be difficult to compare carbon footprints across foods.
Think of the colour-coded system on food for nutrients such as fat, sugar, and salt. This is an easy visual to understand because it relates to the average daily amounts that we should be eating of these nutrients.
That means, when we choose a product with “orange” fat content, we know that it makes up less of our recommended daily intake than a product with “red” fat content.
But foods are far more varied in carbon produced, and a simple visual such as a colour-coded label wouldn’t work. While you would be able to compare similar products in terms of carbon, such as beef mince versus turkey mince, both of these meats will have larger footprints than a vegetable such as an aubergine.
A colour-coded label would simply list all meats as red and all vegetables as green, a variant that’s not particularly useful for consumers looking to make eco-friendlier choices.
Meanwhile, just having the figure for the kilos of carbon created in the production of a food is probably not a viable alternative. To most people, this information will mean very little – a figure of 1.3 kgCO2eq/kg without any context isn’t exactly user-friendly.
As a result, having a carbon metric that both clearly and accurately translates across products is currently a challenge.
- Just another label on packaging
Another potential drawback of carbon food labelling is that it could quickly become lost on the packaging.
Food packaging is already incredibly congested. Alongside brand names, taglines, and imagery, there are ingredient lists, nutrient content, and recycling details to contend with, all before carbon is added, too.
As a result, there’s a danger that a carbon food label might just become another part of the scenery. In turn, consumers may simply ignore it, instead choosing the same products they know they like.
Weighing up the pros and cons
While the concept of carbon labelling seems sensible, there are clearly still pitfalls that will need to be overcome for it to be useful information that consumers want to act on.
In the meantime, if you want to check your carbon footprint, including everything from your diet to your travel and shopping habits, use the WWF’s Footprint Calculator. This will show you the impact your lifestyle makes on the planet, as well as offer a few tips for reducing your footprint.