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Why is Food Carbon incognito?

Why is Food Carbon incognito?

The carbon footprints of things (remembering EVERYTHING has a carbon footprint) are going to become more apparent and transparent as climate change tries to elbow its way to the front of public prominence.

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. 

Consumers underestimate the amount of carbon in food

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. 

Is it time for an effective, informative, Carbon Label

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. 

Comparative labelling

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: 

  • the importance of knowledge of carbon footprints of food in the reduction of green house gases
  • the hidden factors involved food production causing high carbon emission
  • the difficulty finding a common public labelling system and 
  • the enormous degree of variation of the carbon footprints in food 

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.

Eco Consumer tips

  • When shopping, choose items labelled ‘Product of Australia’ as your first preference. Second preference ‘Made in Australia’ and choose imported items as last preference.
  • Better still, buy local. Purchase from local independent co-ops and grocers rather than the big supermarket chains. In the market, ask your local grocer, where the produce comes from.
  • Check out Local Harvest – a resource for finding good food close to you! 
  • Use one of the many food box systems supporting local farmers directly.
  • Eat and buy in season. By eating seasonally you get the most flavour and nutritional value and it is usually the most affordable.  
  • Visit Farmers’ markets – where you can talk to the farmer directly.

Images: Unsplash - Elenor Cordery / Edge Environment / Environmental Working Group (EWG) / The Conversation


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