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Commentary: Companies, show us the carbon footprint of your food

LONDON: I’m in the market for a new oven. Like the flat my partner and I are purchasing, which the United Kingdom government mandates have an energy performance certificate, appliances come with an efficiency rating and data about average electricity use.

It’s information that’s becoming essential as people look to reduce both their bills and their impact on the environment. But, how about what goes in the oven?

Food production contributes about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and will be one of the hardest sectors to get to net zero. New technologies will be important but, as I’ve written before, the task becomes much easier if people cut down on foods with the highest environmental impact – mainly meat and dairy.

Oatly Group, which sells milk made from oats and other non-dairy products, has launched a campaign aimed at drawing attention to one low-cost way of encouraging that dietary change: Climate labelling. The idea is that all food and drink companies should make the extent of their carbon footprint clearly available, in the same way that ovens get their efficiency ratings and food packaging has nutritional information. 

The Swedish food group has been printing the carbon impact of its products on packaging in the UK since 2019 and now wants to spark a conversation about what an effective climate labelling system should look like. Brands such as Tenzing and Quorn have also introduced climate labels on their packaging, but it remains rare and with no standardised approach.

Policymakers are exploring the idea, too. The Food Data Transparency Partnership, set up by the UK government, is working toward establishing a mandatory methodology for voluntary food eco-labels, alongside other objectives. That’s a good start.

GETTING THE DETAILS OF CARBON LABELLING

I’m a believer that consumers have a right to as much information as possible about the products they’re purchasing, but it has to be presented in a way that’s useful.

Looking at the carbon label on the back of the Oatly carton in my fridge, it strikes me that the number alone – 0.49kg of CO2-equivalent per 1kg of whole oat drink – leaves me only with more questions: How does that compare to dairy milk or other plant-based alternatives, for example?

At the moment, even if a rival brand printed a climate label, there’s no guarantee that it’s measuring the same things. The Food Data Transparency Partnership’s work to create a uniform methodology solves that, but doesn’t provide context.

Plus, carbon labels, like energy performance certificate ratings and nutritional information, are only truly useful if you can compare them across groups. That means it needs to be mandatory.

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Then there’s the way the label looks. An absolute number, as Oatly is calling for, will be the best in terms of comparability, but it needs to be accompanied by some design features to make it both stand out – a label that nobody notices is as bad as a label that’s not there – and easy to interpret.

Energy performance certificate ratings come in a colour-coded range, for example and sugar and fat content is sometimes displayed using a traffic light system. That gives us an instant reading on how well the product performs.

Likewise, we know roughly how many calories we’re supposed to eat a day, but there’s no suggested daily carbon budget for our diets.

WHY NOT LEARN FROM SUGAR TAX?

A poll of UK consumers commissioned by Oatly found broad public support for climate labels: 62 per cent of respondents were in favor of a policy to introduce carbon footprints on food and drink products, while 59 per cent said that they’d curb their consumption of high-impact products. That sounds promising, but policymakers might want to learn from the world’s experience with sugar.

In the fight against obesity, countries around the world have traffic light labels to indicate the healthiness of certain products. But studies failed to find evidence that the labelling affected shoppers’ habits.

I’m concerned of a repeat with carbon labels. In the face of information overload and potentially conflicting priorities, from brand loyalty and taste to nutritional values and price, there’s only so much optimising the average shopper can do, no matter how good their intentions are.

One thing has worked to reduce sugar consumption: Taxes.

More than 50 countries have introduced taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, and studies from Mexico, the UK and South Africa have shown that these levies have reduced demand for sugary drinks and led to the reformulation of products to reduce sugar levels.

It’s not hard to see how that could be replicated with carbon, with the price signal nudging consumers to eat greener foods and incentivising companies to make ambitious cuts to their carbon emissions.

The bad news about carbon taxes on food are the politics, as my colleague Mark Gongloff has explored. Public backlash against the perceived costs of net zero policies has led to the rolling back of some targets in the UK, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has already claimed to have “scrapped” a non-existent meat tax.

If a carbon tax on our food is impossible to push through right now, then carbon labels will be a good arrow to have in our quiver. But I’d like to see them printed on everything. As Oatly teases, come on dairy: Show us your numbers.

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