Food systems contribute 19%–29% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to a report by Sonja Vermeulen and others in 2012, although there is huge inherent uncertainty in these estimates.
The major impacts come from farming/agriculture and land-use change with fertilisers, pesticides, manure, farming and land-use change together contributing as much as around 24% of global GHGs. Livestock alone contribute 14.5% of human-made GHG emissions.
Research shows that consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels. However calculating the carbon footprint of food is difficult, expensive, and fraught with uncertainty. As a result, parts of the food industry such as the chilled food sector are opposed to labelling.
One solution, adopted by the CarbonTrust, is to label organisations whose carbon, water and waste footprints are reducing year on year. However this will not help consumers compare the carbon footprints of similar products.
Since labelling individual foods with their actual carbon emissions is difficult and expensive, it is probably not going to be adopted. But is it really necessary? Surely what the consumer needs is to know in general which sort of foods emit less carbon than others.
Details of all this now follows.
Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels
In an article published in Nature Climate Change in January 2019, Adrian Camilleri et al argue that food production is a major cause of energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and therefore diet change is an important behavioural strategy for reducing associated environmental impacts.
However, a severe obstacle to diet change may be consumers’ underestimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food. Here we show that energy consumption and GHG emission estimates are significantly underestimated for foods, suggesting a possible blind spot suitable for intervention. In a second study, we find that providing consumers with information regarding the GHG emissions associated with the life cycle of food, presented in terms of a familiar reference unit (light-bulb minutes), shifts their actual purchase choices away from higher-emission options. Thus, although consumers’ poor understanding of the food system is a barrier to reducing energy use and GHG emissions, it also represents a promising area for simple interventions such as a well-designed carbon label.
The article recommends that food labels include the number of light-bulb minutes equivalent
In his notes on the research leading to his conclusions, Camilleri says
The publication of this research highlights three important points.
- First, people deeply underestimate the energy consumed and greenhouse gases emitted in the consumption of food, particularly red meat. This blind spot is ripe for intervention, perhaps in the form of a well-designed carbon label.
- Second, in addition to economic and engineering solutions, positive behavioral changes are possible and therefore worth pursuing.
- Third, an initiative such as Bass Connections, which integrates different disciplinary approaches around a practical problem, can spark important research that may not otherwise emerge.
But he adds that the process of figuring out the carbon footprint of a food item is difficult, expensive, and fraught with uncertainty. According to the life cycle analysis (LCA) software and carbon footprint analyzer FoodCarbonScope, which is produced by the company CleanMetrics, the production and transport of 1 kilogram of bone-free beef in the United States produces approximately between 12.9 and 17.3 kg CO2 equivalent.
Chilled Food Association Opposes Footprint Labelling
Their website explains why the CFA believe that carbon footprint labelling of individual foods is misguided and potentially misleading to consumers for the chilled food sector, and why they “favour the carbon footprinting of the business making foods which we believe to be far more relevant to identifying and addressing areas for carbon reduction than carbon footprint labelling”.
Some of the reasons behind their thinking are
due to the complexity of the chilled prepared food manufacturing sector, which makes carbon footprint labelling by food problematic. For example:
- a single site may be producing up to 100 SKUs (stock keeping units, i.e. products) each day, each of which has numerous raw materials/ingredients, sourced globally and year-round
- the commercial life spans of chilled food recipes are typically very short, with most being less than one year
- many chilled prepared foods are also seasonal, with a short window of marketing opportunity
- the same raw material can be sourced from different countries dependent on seasonality and availability, e.g. produce
- some components, e.g. seasonings, may have a large number of subcomponents, e.g. spices and herbs
- the same product can be prepared using different cooking techniques at point of consumption, e.g. microwave, conventional oven (gas, electric or fan-assisted).
Given this, the calculation of the carbon density of any given chilled food will be complicated, time-consuming, resource-hungry and expensive. In addition, it will be confusing for consumers if the carbon footprint labelling of a food changes because of ingredient and/or sourcing changes, or because of different point of consumption preparation methods.
CFA, therefore, favours a streamlined approach and believes that within the BSI and Carbon Trust activity there should be an opportunity for businesses that have made a commitment to reduce their carbon footprint to be recognised as opposed to each product carrying carbon footprint labelling.
Carbon Trust Standard
The Carbon Trust Standard recognises organisations that take a best practice approach to measuring and managing their environmental impacts, achieving real reductions in these year-on-year, providing a framework for organisations to enhance their operational sustainability, improve efficiency and resource management at the same time as cutting costs.
General Comparison of Foods
Perhaps all the consumer really needs is an easy way to find out the relative emissions of one serving of different types of food. They can then adjust their normal diet to pick the level of emissions they want. We show an example of this comparison on this page.
Climate Change and Food Systems, Home Annual Review of Environment and Resources Volume 37, 2012 Vermeulen, pp 195-222
Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels, Nature Climate Change, Vol 9, 2019 Camilleri, pp53-58
Carbon Footprint Labelling, Chilled Food Association
Carbon Trust Standard