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Current Position:Home » News » Food Technology » Topic

Carbon label potential: Clear options can steer consumers towards more environmentally friendly food

Zoom in font  Zoom out font Published: 2018-12-21  Views: 13
Core Tip: Shoppers favor items with a lower carbon footprint as long as they’re given clear information on the label.
Shoppers favor items with a lower carbon footprint as long as they’re given clear information on the label. This is according to new research from the University of Technology Sydney and Duke University, in Australia. As part of the study, researchers presented 120 participants with a choice of soups. They found that when the products had a “carbon label,” participants bought fewer beef soups and more vegetable soups, in comparison to when there was no label provided. The news comes just as FrieslandCampina launches the first ever milk cartons with the “On the way to PlanetProof” labels in the Netherlands.

Shoppers greatly underestimate the difference their food choices can make to climate change. Between 19 percent and 29 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions currently come from food production, with beef and lamb as the most significant contributors. Shifting diets towards greater fruit and vegetable intake is a promising strategy for reducing climate change, the research highlights.

As part of the Australian study, researchers looked at improving consumer perception of the environmental impact of their food choices through the use of labeling.

“Currently, there isn’t much awareness of the environmental implications of what consumers eat. I think better information, perhaps in the form of a label, could help address this issue. However, we could also pursue other education campaign pathways, including changing curricula, so that this information is taught to children from an early age,” lead author of the study, Dr. Camilleri tells.

Greenhouse gases emerging from beef and lamb production include those created in the production of fertilizer for feed, methane emitted from the animals, livestock transportation and the loss of trees to clear land for pasture.

A vegan diet based on fruits, vegetables and grains has the least impact on the environment, with pork, chicken and fish creating a moderate impact and beef and lamb creating the most significant impact, the researchers note.

“The choices we make at the dinner table can have a significant impact on global challenges such as climate change and our research shows consumers are keen to make that choice,”
The introduction of carbon footprint labels on food items could be a simple intervention to increase understanding of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from food production, therefore reducing environmental impacts.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri explains further: “When making food choices, everyone has different priorities such as cost, taste, health, animal welfare and environmental impacts. What industry can do to help consumers make better food choices is, at a minimum, provide information that can inform pursuit of these goals.”

Over 1,000 participants took part in an adjacent study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change and they were asked to estimate the energy embedded in 19 foods and 18 appliances, including the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with those appliances and foods.

The researchers found participants “significantly” underestimated energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions for both electrical appliances and foods – but the food was more severely underrated.

“If you ask people to guess the difference between items such as beef and vegetable soup on the environment, they assume there is not much difference, but beef soup creates more than ten times the amount of greenhouse gases than vegetable soup,” explains Dr. Camilleri.

“This is a bit of a blind spot because if consumers want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, they might think to turn off the heater, drive or fly less, for example. Very few people choose to consume less beef.”

The research notes that the environmental impact of food can be reduced by moving away from red meat, according to Dr. Camilleri. “Another potential solution and one that we will pursue in future research is reducing food waste,” he notes. “Currently, we (consumers) waste around one-third of all the food that we produce. Halving food loss and waste could reduce environmental pressures by 6 to 16 percent.”

In light of this, Dr. Camilleri maintains that the team were not surprised by the results. “We had predicted them,” he claims firmly. “This is because many of the greenhouse gas emissions from food production are invisible to most consumers. Unlike appliances, which have clear signals of drawing power, most people do not know, for example, that the digestive system of cows produce a lot of methane and that methane is a potent greenhouse gas.”

He also believes that consumers would benefit from having easy access to accurate information about the environmental impact of their food choices. “Improved labeling is one viable option,” he adds.

The news comes as the dairy sector steps up its commitments to sustainability, with FrieslandCampina having just launched the first ever milk cartons with the “On the way to PlanetProof” labels in the Netherlands.

According to the major dairy player, this allows consumers to choose more sustainable milk that meets high demands in terms of animal welfare, nature and climate. The label, from Stichting Milieukeur, sets the standard for a broader sustainability approach for agriculture and horticulture. FrieslandCampina is the first dairy company that meets the requirements. For a few cents more, consumers can now choose a more sustainable dairy product, says the dairy cooperative and this directly benefits the dairy farmers involved.

Hein Schumacher, FrieslandCampina CEO says: “As FrieslandCampina, we want to be a frontrunner in sustainable dairy products. Together with our member dairy farmers, we have therefore been working for years on a more sustainable dairy farm. Thanks to the ‘On the way to Planet Proof’ label, we show how we take the next step and continue to move forward.”

“By buying dairy products with the ‘On the way to Planet Proof’ label, consumers can directly reward dairy farmers who are committed to animal welfare and improving nature and the environment. It is also an encouragement for other dairy farmers to make their farm more sustainable. That is not only good for the sector but good for all of us,” he explains.

The study comes as Innova Market Insights anticipates Green Appeal as one of its key trends for 2019. Going green is now a given and as 2020 targets draw ever closer, showing a company’s green colors is something that today’s “mindful consumer” expects.

A 2018 Innova Market Insights survey found that 64 percent of US and UK consumers expect companies to invest in sustainability. The survey noted that consumers’ environmental concerns outweigh social and ethical ones when considering the brands that they buy. When we look at the “biggest social and environmental concerns when considering the brands that you buy,” the total percentage concerned across six global markets (US, UK, France, Germany, China and Brazil) was as follows: waste & pollution (54 percent), sustainability (51 percent), environmental (44 percent), fair (26 percent), support for social causes (25 percent) and animal welfare (18 percent).

The results also found that two-thirds of consumers say they would prefer a food & beverage product over another if it claimed to be sustainable and planet-friendly. However, a quarter will only buy if the price is similar. A third of US, UK and Germany require price parity to make a switch. Over one third rate packaging as mattering most when considering the environmental/social/ethical impact of food & beverage products.

The role for sustainable eating and agriculture will come into greater will come into greater focus in 2019 with dietary guidelines one of the areas being reviewed as a result.

In January 2019, The EAT-Lancet Commission will publish the first-ever report providing scientific targets for what constitutes both a healthy diet and a sustainable food system.

“By reviewing existing knowledge and knowledge gaps on healthy diets and sustainable food, the Commission has assessed the scientific evidence on human nutritional needs as well as sustainable levels of environmental impact from food production. By clarifying the links between food, health and environmental sustainability, it has the potential to provide key puzzle pieces for the transformation of the food system,” the group behind the report writes.

The British Association of Dieticians Blue Dot initiative, which was launched in November 2018, includes a toolkit for sustainable diets. Throughout 2018, the BDA has been part of a working group collating and reviewing the latest evidence from around the world on environmentally sustainable and healthy eating patterns, drilling down to macronutrient level.

“Polls show that where 50 percent of us are likely to consider dietary changes to reduce the impact on climate change, in reality, there are significant barriers to changing behavior for the majority of people. One Blue Dot aims to tackle this problem. It provides both the latest evidence and a bank of practical resources, including menu swap suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” the group writes. A nine-point plan includes: Reductions in red and processed meat to 70g per person per day (also recommended by the World Cancer Research Fund); prioritizing plant proteins such as beans, nuts, soy and tofu; consuming fish from sustainable sources and moderating dairy consumption and using fortified alternatives where needed.

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