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Sweden Begins Labeling Food for Carbon Footprint

October 30, 2009

By now everyone is familiar with the USDA mandated nutritional information panel required on all manufactured or packaged food products.  This labeling initiative was founded on the premise that an informed consumer public could and would make better, meaning more healthy, food choices if presented with easy to understand nutritional information on all of the products available to them.  True to interest group politics, the labeling methods got watered down by food interests.  Only after a further discerning push by the USDA and nutrition groups concerned about child obesity did labeling become more clear-cut and easier to read.  Consumers have the option to shop according to health.  It is yet to be seen how effective this labeling is in improving nutrition and health in America.  I still see many people walk into my local health food and organically-inclined grocery store and walk out with cases of soda and bags of chips and not much else. 

Now imagine if the USDA labeled food with its carbon footprint.  I can see it now, just under the “dietary fiber” row but above the “Vitamin A” row one would find “Total carbon expended per packaged product” and “carbon emitted per ounce.” (One would assume the USDA would then set dietary standards for carbon impact in order to provide guidance to consumers regarding their food carbon footprint.) Well, we now have an idea of what this carbon labeling would look like.  The Nutrition Department at the Swedish National Food Administration has begun implementing a carbon footprint labeling for some grocery and fast foods.  For example, a product would be labeled with the following: “Climate declared: .87kg CO2 per kg of product.” Unlike the nutritional information at American fast food chains which is often buried in a stack of pamphlets on a well-hidden wall or out of eyesight display board, the Swedes have put fast food carbon scores right up on the menu next to the pictures and prices.  If only the USDA had the chutzpa to require fast food chains to list the fat content of their menu next to the pictures; only then perhaps we’d see a sizeable change in the obesity rate. 

But perhaps not.  The same could be said of listing the carbon footprint of food items.  It is still too early to tell if the carbon labeling of some foods has influenced consumer purchasing decisions.  But aside from that uncertainty, a number of issues must first be addressed.  First amongst those is the problem of accurately measuring the carbon footprint of every food item.  Just looking at the difficulty the EPA is currently experiencing in determining the carbon foot print of biofuels tells us this will not be an easy feat.  In fact, this could be downright impossible without a system to simplify the measurement process.  Even if agreement could be reached regarding what inputs to include (fertilizers, fuel for tractors, packaging, product transportation) and which to exclude (tractor manufacturing, retailing energy costs), there would still be debate regarding the detailed accounting.  In a similar vein, there would be considerable debate over whether to use a permanent score or a score updated according to season and location.  Similarly, does each product stream get measured, or would averages get used for a score.  Sweden’s system uses an average score, removing consideration for production variations.  Using averages has the potential for easier implementation, but removes any reward for food processors to become a pioneer in reducing a food’s carbon footprint.  The same can be said of using a more permanent score.

We have seen some labeling systems produce considerable results in spurring consumer demand for products which address social concerns.  Fair trade, organic, and forest sustainability certification have all had considerable (and growing) impacts on their respective product markets.  However, those systems took the guesswork out for consumers.  With simple labeling, experts do the analysis to determine whether a product meets a standard.  Consumers simply have to look for a seal or stamp of approval.  That is much easier that evaluating products for numerical scores. 

And what if simple scoring does not incentivize consumer decisions enough to avoid carbon intensive foods.  In some regards, economic theory states an informed market will make the most efficient decisions to reflect their particular values and interests.  But what if people just plain don’t have enough concern over carbon to be willing to trade a higher price for a better carbon score (which may not always be the case as some foods produced in a low-carbon manner may in fact also cost less)?  Is the next reasonable step a carbon tax based upon carbon score? Then what about tax equity?

Finally, how do we consider other values beyond carbon emissions?  How do we make the case (and how would such get implemented) for the full definition of sustainability and not just carbon emissions?  Sure some foods may have a low carbon score, but they could also have a poor soil erosion score, or animal care score, or fair trade score.  Greenhouse gas emissions are but one issue requiring consideration in our food production and distribution system.  This new Swedish system certainly bodes well for raising awareness of emissions in food production, which may lead to further refinement of approaches to value sustainability.  But if done poorly, it could also slow the work toward rewarding sustainability in food production. 

For more information see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/world/europe/23degrees.html?scp=1&sq=to%20cut%20global%20warming,%20swedes%20study%20their%20plates&st=cse

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 1, 2010 7:43 pm

    of course when you dont have time to cook, fastfoods would always be the best option .”;

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