Is mandatory eco-labelling a climate change pathway to low-GHG food?
IN the same way many household appliances are rated for their energy efficiency, food will have mandatory eco-labelling to allow consumers an environmentally friendly choice under a plan by a University of Oxford research scientist.
Joseph Poore’s Guardian op-ed on eco-labelling for food struck a chord after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported this month.
The IPCC report calls for “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to achieve the transformation required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels
The IPCC says agriculture accounts for 14 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, 10 per is from livestock alone. Those figures are mirrored in Australia.
A shift in diet towards less meat was described in the IPCC summary for policy makers as was the need for “healthy consumption patterns”, “responsible consumption” and “sustainable diets”.
The report clearly says that behaviour and lifestyle are important elements of the feasibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
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In his article, Poore uses the example of eco-labelling on appliances to underline how better-informed consumers are able to make more environmentally friendly choices.
The labelling of appliances required an energy rating to be displayed on the item, and had a huge impact on the production and purchase of appliances.
Initially 75 per cent of fridges and freezers were rated with low efficiency, whilst today 98 per cent are classed at the highest two levels.
Worldwide the energy efficiency of labelled appliances has increased three times faster than appliances without labels.
Some niche forms eco-labelling already exists and dedicated consumers already consider inputs from farming and transport, and modern slavery supply chain issues for example.
Impact monitoring inexpensive
Poore says monitoring the environmental impacts of products is relatively inexpensive, as existing on-farm digital tools, such as Fieldprint and the Cool Farm Tool already exist; “Olam, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, already tracks 160,000 growers through its Farmer Information System” and these monitoring tools can often find ways of making other efficiencies, which can be popular with farmers who need to make savings or cut emissions.
When choosing energy-efficient appliances, consumers rank environmental issues almost equally with future cost savings. In the long-term innovative practices and monitoring by farmers could lead to more efficiencies, greater savings and lower emissions, which would be a win-win for everyone, he says.
“From my conversations with people across the industry, we consumers are always eager to understand more about where our food comes from and how eco-friendly products are.
“If this information could be easily identifiable through a rated labelling system, this would seem an ideal way forward for the sustainable economy,” Poore says.
Three far-reaching changes
Mandatory environmental labels would change how we produce and consume in three far-reaching ways.
First, producers would have to measure their impacts in a uniform way and be accountable for the results. This would not be expensive: it is free to monitor environmental impacts using digital tools such as Fieldprint and the Cool Farm Tool. Existing on-farm checks for subsidy payments and satellite data can validate farmer information. Olam, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, already tracks 160,000 growers through its Farmer Information System.
Second, mandatory labels support sustainable consumption. Our research found that products that look, taste and cost the same can have dramatically different environmental impacts. A bar of chocolate can create 6.5kg of CO2eq – the same as driving 30 miles in a car – but zero emissions if the cacao trees are growing and storing carbon. High-impact beef producers use 5,700% more land and create 1,000% more emissions than low-impact producers. Labels would allow consumers to tell these products apart.
Third, mandatory environmental labels would create information about the food system, and today this information is scarce. This could underpin better policy, particularly taxes or subsidies linked to actual environmental harm. When choosing energy-efficient appliances, consumers rank environmental issues about equally with future cost savings. In the long term, better financial incentives will be required in food too. These incentives would also encourage producers to innovate and change their practices. This is possible: more than $0.5tn of subsidies is distributed to farmers each year, but little of that money is linked to environmental issues.
Poore says what we need now is for our leaders to implement mandatory environmental labelling. This would reward sustainable companies, enable sustainable eating and support better policymaking. This relatively simple but powerful change could be instrumental in halting and reversing the escalating degradation of our imperilled planet.