Calculating the carbon footprint of food is a complex equation involving many factors. Even for fresh produce, from seed to mouth, the public are often unaware of all the processes involved, such as the fertilisers used in farming, distance to market, packaging, natural resources used and farming methods.
The results of a study headed by UTS in Sydney, Australia, to determine if consumers could accurately predict the carbon emissions of various foods, showed participants radically underestimated the true greenhouse gas emissions of foods in almost every case. It probably comes as no surprise that additionally, consumers are often surprised at the high carbon-emissions of certain foods that correlate with healthy diet choices, such as fresh produce.
Australia has been at the forefront of carbon labelling trends. In 2001, we pioneered product carbon labels with the Greenhouse Friendly initiative for companies wishing to offer carbon neutral products using carbon offsets. Then, in 2010, Planet Ark’s Carbon Reduction Label Program launched in Australia in ALDI stores. Both initiatives went on to have limited uptake in this country. Of course both these initiatives were many years ago and awareness has grown substantially in the meantime.
While it’s a complex process, ultimately a carbon emissions measure or score for foods can be calculated and distilled down to a simple number. Conjecture clouds the best way to present this criteria to the end consumer. Some believe a single number has not worked to help consumers understand carbon emissions relative to other foods and subsequently consumers continue to underestimate the tremendous scale of difference.To drive home the relatively large amount of carbon emissions from food production, researchers began to compare the carbon footprints to other forms of energy use that the public is a lot more familiar with such as GHG emissions from a car.This comparison exercise drove a new wave of possible labelling designs to help the consumer place a particular food stuff along a much greater spectrum of carbon emission transgressions. Then last year, a study devised a food label comparing food emissions with the length of time a light bulb was left on. The image below shows the carbon emissions for a serve of beef and vegetable soup. The beef portion of the soup is forcing the carbon emissions up, which consumers may already be aware of. However, they might calculate the beef as twice as bad, where in fact it’s ten times worse. Reducing the consumption of high carbon footprint foods, such as red meat, is a key driver in reducing climate change.
Adding all the factors up about carbon labelling:
should, in theory, see carbon labelling as the next mandatory labeling requirement determined by Australian Food Standards. Alas, it is not. In the absence of compulsory carbon food labels these rudimentary rules will help you make good choices.