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Could an eco-label power more sustainable food systems?

© Shutterstock / HollyHarryimage of sustainable food labelling on a bunch of bananas

New data could be key to a better understanding of the climate impact of food. Transparency could benefit consumers but introduces a new reputation risk to the food and drink industries.

An Oxford University study has developed a new methodology to calculate the climate impacts of multi-ingredient food in supermarkets.

More and more consumers would like to eat more sustainably, but there is an information gap to inform consumers on the climate impact of food.

The development of an international standardised eco-label could be an important tool for cutting emissions in the food sector.

When you go to the supermarket, it is not uncommon to look at the label to see the ingredients and the nutritional information of a product before you buy. New research assessing environmental impact provides a new way to assess the impact of what we eat – and a new potential risk for the food and drink industry as pressure increases for positive environmental impact.

New research could drive transparency in the food supply system

A study published by Oxford University provides a new way of assessing the environmental impacts of supermarket food, filling an important information gap on how the food affects the climate. It could underpin new ways of helping consumers make more informed decisions when buying the food they eat.

This is the first time a “transparent and reproducible” method has been used to holistically assess the climate impacts of multi-ingredient products. The methodology takes into account factors such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), land use, water stress and the run-off of nutrients into natural water sources.

This methodology was applied to analyse the environmental impact of 57,000 food products in the UK and Ireland, comparing the impact of meat versus meat-alternative products.

Analysis of multi-ingredient food products is often quite complicated, as the exact proportion of each ingredient included in the final product is often not disclosed by the manufacturer. However, in the UK manufacturers are legally obliged to provide percentage values for certain ingredients, and ingredients are listed on packaging in order of size.

One of the limitations of the Oxford analysis is a lack of information on the source of each ingredient, such as country of origin and agricultural production method, which would impact the environmental impacts scores. However the algorithm it provides, and the ‘eco-score’ it generates are a huge step towards transparency about impact.

Overall, the study found that many meat alternatives had one-fifth to less than one-tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based equivalents. The study also ties climate impact to nutritional value using the Nutri-score method, and found that “products that were more sustainable tended to be more nutritious”.

While the result of the study is not necessarily new considering the mounting evidence and viral Netflix documentaries on the climate impact of a carnivorous diet, the potential applications of the new methodology could be significant in more accurately measuring the climate implications of people’s favourite food products beyond just meat.

Could an eco-label be in the future for the food we buy?

A survey ran by UK regulator the Food Standards Agency found that nearly three-quarters of Britons think it is important for them to purchase food that has a low environmental impact. However, less than half of the survey respondents thought they knew what a sustainable diet actually consists of.

There is a clear knowledge gap for consumers who want to eat more sustainably to reduce their carbon footprint, as they are constantly inundated with different information about what is sustainable, and what is not.

A lack of transparency and standards to inform consumers about the climate impacts of the food they eat could thus be a barrier for people trying to make informed decisions when they are faced with thousands of choices each time they go to the supermarket.

“By estimating the environmental impact of food and drink products in a standardised way… we have taken a significant first step towards providing information that could enable informed decision-making” said Dr. Michael Clarke, lead author of the study.

“We still need to find how best effectively to communicate this information, in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward”, added Clarke.

International standards for ingredients are commonplace

There are already internationally recognised climate-related labels that exist for a range of food products, such as those provided by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Marine Stewardship Council. However, these labels are limited in scope and do not account for the wider climate impacts of a specific food product through quantitative measurements.

Eco-labels are becoming increasingly important in building transparency on the climate impact of food products. An eco-label could be an important tool to better inform consumers, as well as hold food manufacturers more accountable for their climate impacts, which could encourage these companies to deploy more climate-friendly practices.

Earlier this year, Denmark became the first country to announce that it will be rolling out a state-controlled climate label on food products. The Danish government has committed Kr. 9 million ($1.2 million) to develop a proposal for a national climate label that can be broadly used by the food industry.

“The Danes want to eat more climate-friendly. But it is difficult to see what the green choice is when you are standing with the shopping basket in hand”, said Denmark’s minister for food, agriculture and fisheries Rasmus Prehn.

“Denmark must now have a state-controlled climate label. It must be one unified brand that consumers can trust, so we avoid a forest of brands that just confuse”, he added.

Lessons learnt from nutritional labelling

We take for granted that we can easily find how many calories, sugar, protein, and vitamins are in our food by simply looking at the label. But this was not always the case.

The familiar black and white Nutrition Facts Label seen on almost all food products across the world today began to first appear on food packages in the US in 1994. While there were some requirements before this label for manufacturers to provide information for ingredients and nutrition on packaging before this, it was not done in a standardised way and led to manufacturers putting the information in small print and thus not easily accessible by consumers.

However, with the passing of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, a standardised label was put in place and expanded to cover virtually all foods regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The nutritional label slowly began to be adopted in other countries across the world. While there are differences in each country in regards to what must be included on the label, they are all based on standards set by Codex Alimentarius, an international food standards body supported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The proliferation of the nutritional label across the globe drives how consumers buy food, as well as how companies manufacture food.

Food labelling has been shown to drive consumer behavioural change

An American study found that the inclusion of nutritional information on food products had some effect on consumer choices. In general, a nutritional label reduced the intake of calories by 6.6%, total fat by 10.6%, and increased vegetable intake by 13.5%.

The study also found that the labels had a significant impact on food manufacturers to make their products healthier. Analysis found that labels reduced the amount of harmful trans fats by 64% and the amount of sodium by 8%.

As more and more countries move towards implementing an eco-label to highlight the climate impacts of their products, it will be helpful to look to the rollout of the nutritional label such as setting standard visual representation of the label, as well as aligning to international standards.

Why does understanding food impact matter?

Food is one of the biggest culprits of environmental impacts. According to a study published in Nature in 2022, global food production generates 17 billion metric tons of GHG emissions annually, with meat-based products accounting for over half of these emissions.

Reducing emissions in the food sector is therefore crucial on the road to net zero. However, since food is tied to many socioeconomic and cultural factors, changing the way people eat is a lot more complicated than switching to clean energy as it requires individual behavioural change.

While it is the individual’s responsibility to buy the food they eat, an eco-label can help consumers make an informed decision on the food they buy and create demand for more sustainable food products.

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