I just finished reading a fascinating NY Times article entitled, “To Cut Global Warming, Swedes Study Their Plates”. The story discussed how Sweden is encouraging their food producers to add carbon dioxide emissions information to food labels. From the complex logistics of managing this type of program to the incredible possibilities that will come from exposing the public to the true cost of its food, carbon footprint labels on food represent the cutting edge of sustainability. Despite inevitable challenges, this idea seems so simple and full of promise that I cannot stop thinking about how it could be developed in the US.
Last year, the Nutrition Department at Sweden’s National Food Administration was asked to create new guidelines that encompass reducing climate change as well as maintaining human health. Earlier research suggested that up to 25% of an individual’s carbon footprint is associated with their diet. This is an incredible number! It means that in addition to reducing my driving and flying, what I choose to bring into my kitchen affects my carbon emissions. That seeking alternative sources of energy for my home and what I decide to order when eating out are both very important ways in which I can help combat global warming. Providing consumers with more information will enable them to be better stewards to our natural world. What a wonderful step in the right direction.
I see several benefits, as well as some challenges, with including carbon emission counts alongside food in restaurants and at grocery stores. Let me start with two of the potential difficulties.
First of all, who is going to do the measuring and what standards will they follow? In Sweden, emissions labeling is only recommended and each producer is asked to conduct their own research. The government has funded general studies on staple products like rice, fish, carrots, chicken, and tomatoes, but because there are multiple factors, including soil conditions, fertilize use, degree of processing, packaging material, and length transportation, companies such as Max, Sweden’s local answer to McDonald’s, are working to define the footprints of their specific menu items. The nation’s largest food co-op, Lantmannen, which is owned by 40,000 Swedish farmers, is also conducting CO2 emission audits for many of its products and placing its findings in supermarkets across the country. The guidelines put forth by Sweden’s National Food Administration are now under review by other European Union (EU) countries. It will be interesting to see where the process goes from here. I am very encouraged that everything is already underway and am confident that the EU program could act as a model for how to roll out CO2 emission labels for food in America.
Secondly, how are consumers going to understand what the numbers mean? When nutritional labels were introduced across the US in 1994, there was a steep learning curve. Even though much of the population already knew the terms being used, such as fat, protein, sodium, and carbohydrates, most of us did not fully understand how much fiber was enough and how much sugar was considered too much. It has taken both public and private educational campaigns to bring us up to speed on why we should be reading nutritional labels. We have to expect the same ramp up time when emissions information is added to a label already busy with nutritional analysis. For most of the US, the entire idea of carbon emissions, what exactly they mean, how many ounces of CO2 per pound is too much, and what are reasonable alternatives to my burger must be answered. The question is who will be the teacher?
Despite these organizational hurdles, I believe CO2 labels will become ubiquitous over the next few years. The idea is similar in many ways to what Climate Counts has been doing. They are one of my favorite organizations because they are empowering consumers to make purchasing decisions based on how companies are handling their climate change responsibilities. Climate Counts ranks businesses in a variety of sectors against a score card that evaluates what the company is doing to reduce its role in climate change.
Carbon emission labels for food are more specific because they look at individual items rather than an entire organization. I think this is appropriate for food and may be a way for both consumers and producers to ease into a new paradigm where food takes on the important role of saving the Earth. Imagine going into a restaurant and ordering a pizza made with local goat cheese and organic vegetables. It would have a low CO2 count and most likely a slightly higher price than a pizza from the same establishment made with pepperoni and mozzarella from a major distributor, which would have a higher emission label and a corresponding lower price. As with many Swedes, some US consumers will not change their eating habits. But how many of us have been torn between two items at the supermarket or at the local grill? I have a feeling that understanding the true cost to the planet will move a significant portion of the population to choose the meal or product with the lower CO2 emissions. They may not always make choices based on emissions information but if enough people do it even occasionally, their impacts will create change.
If I begin to make food purchasing decisions based on the new food labeling, I am able to help re-focus the companies that produce the food. If Tyson Fresh Meats, the largest beef and pork supplier in the world, observes even a minor fluctuation in the amount of meat they are selling because their products have a high CO2 count, they will no doubt work to become competitive with companies that can provide these items with lower emissions. One of the first steps to measure and then reduce a carbon footprint is to assess the carbon released during each step of the supply chain. By encouraging its suppliers to reduce their emissions, Tyson could literally change the face of the industry. There are numerous examples of how the sustainability requirements Wal-Mart put in place have forced their suppliers to make a variety “green” business changes, many times looking to their own suppliers and asking them to reduce their CO2 emissions. Eventually each player in the chain cleans up their process and we all win.
I have been reading articles for several years that extol the virtues of a plant-based diet. The theme of these pieces has increasingly moved from human health to the well-being of the planet. In addition to their goals of generating all of their energy from non-carbon based fuels by 2020 and not allowing the sale of fossil fuel powered vehicles by 2030, Sweden has researched what else they can do to help reduce their country’s carbon emissions. By rolling out the inclusion of CO2 emission information with one of the most common items in our day-to-day lives, they have pioneered a system that has the power to transform the way we look at our food and the way we interact with our planet.
I am very hopeful that despite the logistical challenges, carbon dioxide emissions labels on food will soon be as common as nutritional information. I foresee both government and private institutions playing a role in developing the program as well as educating consumers on how to decipher CO2 figures. Whether or not consumers decide to act on this information is still unknown. I like to think that if we were able to ensure the safety of dolphins by demanding they be protected during tuna fishing, we will find it a way to make food choices that ensure the entire Earth is spared while we work to feed ourselves.