Appliances have labels for energy efficiency, so why not food?
"If the rest of the world produced food the way we do in Denmark, the world would be a better place." These words were spoken earlier this month by Morten Høyer, director of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, which made international headlines for its proposal to add climate impact labels to food.
The council would like to oblige food manufacturers and supermarkets to rate their products' impact on the climate and environment, in order to help shoppers make more educated decisions. As CNN reports, the council also sees it as an opportunity to "promote best practices when it comes to mitigating the effects of farming on climate change."Denmark has apparently been working with the European Union for ten years to develop a climate impact label for food, but after the International Panel on Climate Change published its jarring report earlier this month, stating that extreme measures are required within the next 12 years if global warming is to be kept below 1.5C, the Danish government included food labelling in its 38-point plan for a greener future, issued the same week as the IPCC report. As climate minister Christian Lilleholt stated,
"We want consumers to get a tool when they stand in the supermarket, which can help them assess how much climate impact the product has."
Joseph Poore is an agricultural researcher at the University of Oxford who believes that climate labels are a smart thing to mandate. In an article for The Guardian, he likens it to labels on appliances, which have displayed energy efficiency since 1992. It would make sense to do the same for food, considering that its production system "threatens 10,000 species with extinction, emits about 30 percent of greenhouse gases, and drives 80 percent of our nitrogen and phosphorus pollution." Climate impact labels would have three main benefits, Poore argues.
First, producers would have to measure their impacts in a uniform way and be accountable for the results. Without monitoring, it is difficult to find ways to cut down on emissions, but when done it can be very effective.
"Providing farmers with tools to monitor impacts is a better approach than requiring they adopt certain practices. In China, a massive programme engaged 21 million smallholders: farmers who monitored and flexibly addressed their impacts reported 12 percent yield increases and 20 percent cuts in emissions compared with farmers who did not."
Second, mandatory labels support sustainable consumption. Right now there are roughly 460 voluntary environmentally-related labels that manufacturers can use, should they choose to, i.e. Rainforest Alliance and RSPO certification for palm oil. But these have little impact, partly because "producers who are already low-impact certify while high-impact producers go label-free." Mandatory labels, however, would "encourage more people to think about their choices by exposing them to the facts every time they are in the shops."
Third, mandatory environmental labels would create information about the food system, and today this information is scarce. This could lead to better use of subsidies and taxes to punish environmental harm and incentivize sustainable, circular practices.
Environmental impact is obviously a complex thing to assess and fit onto a single small label, as critics point out on Poore's article, but at this point any effort is better than none. If seeing the impact of a pound of beef encourages someone to pick up a pound of beans instead, then that's an improvement.
What I would not want to see, though, is additional packaging being added to foods that currently are sold loose, in order to hold a label. Fruits and vegetables could perhaps have signs beside the price tags that explain the impact of each variety.
It will be interesting to see what happens in supermarkets once Denmark implements the change, how it affects consumer choices, and whether other nations do the same.