We la­bel fridges to show their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact – why not food?

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Joseph Poore

If you buy a wash­ing ma­chine, a fridge or a tele­vi­sion in Europe, it comes with a sticker. Thanks to a 1992 EU direc­tive, all ap­pli­ances must be la­belled with their en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

So why has our food sys­tem – which threatens 10,000 species with ex­tinc­tion, emits about 30% of green­house gases, and drives 80% of our ni­tro­gen and phos­pho­rus pol­lu­tion – only ever had vol­un­tary eco­la­bels?

The ap­pli­ances rul­ing had a huge im­pact; ini­tially, 75% of fridges and freez­ers were rated G to D (low ef­fi­ciency), but to­day 98% are classed A ++ or A+++. World­wide, the en­ergy ef­fi­ciency of la­belled ap­pli­ances has in­creased three times faster than ap­pli­ances with­out la­bels. In­tro­duc­ing an equiv­a­lent sys­tem for food could have an even big­ger im­pact.

Manda­tory en­vi­ron­men­tal la­bels would change how we pro­duce and con­sume in three far-reach­ing ways. First, pro­duc­ers would have to mea­sure their im­pacts in a uni­form way and be ac­count­able for the re­sults. This would not be ex­pen­sive: it is free to mon­i­tor en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts us­ing dig­i­tal tools such as Field­print and the Cool Farm Tool. Ex­ist­ing on­farm checks for sub­sidy payments and satel­lite data can val­i­date farmer in­for­ma­tion. Olam, one of the world’s largest agri­cul­tural com­pa­nies, al­ready tracks 160,000 grow­ers through its Farmer In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem.

Mon­i­tor­ing tools of­ten re­veal sim­ple ways to re­duce im­pacts; for ex­am­ple, Costco’s or­ganic egg pro­duc­ers found ways to cut emis­sions by 13%.

And be­cause these la­bels would be about re­sults, not how the re­sults are achieved, they would sup­port pro­ducer choice. For ex­am­ple, adopt­ing or­ganic farm­ing or lim­it­ing fer­tiliser use could re­duce im­pacts and prof­its for some farms but in­crease them for oth­ers, de­pend­ing on soil, cli­mate and eco­nomic con­di­tions. 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% yield in­creases and 20% cuts in emis­sions com­pared with far-

mers who did not.

Sec­ond, manda­tory la­bels sup­port sus­tain­able con­sump­tion. Our re­search found that prod­ucts that look, taste and cost the same can have dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts. A bar of choco­late can cre­ate 6.5kg of CO2eq – the same as driv­ing 30 miles in a car – but zero emis­sions if the ca­cao trees are grow­ing and stor­ing car­bon. High-im­pact beef pro­duc­ers use 5,700% more land and cre­ate 1,000% more emis­sions than low-im­pact pro­duc­ers. La­bels would al­low con­sumers to tell these prod­ucts apart.

It’s true that ex­ist­ing eco­la­bels such as Rain­for­est Al­liance and RSPO Sus­tain­able Palm have had limited en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits and made lit­tle im­pact on con­sumer be­hav­iour. One rea­son for this is that they are vol­un­tary: pro­duc­ers who are al­ready low­im­pact cer­tify while high-im­pact pro­duc­ers go la­bel-free. And vol­un­tary la­belling doesn’t lever­age con­sumer be­hav­iour: shop­pers are more likely to stop buy­ing brands they per­ceive as un­eth­i­cal than to start buy­ing those they per­ceive to be eth­i­cal. Fur­ther, about 460 of these vol­un­tary la­bels ex­ist and con­sumer recog­ni­tion is gen­er­ally low.

Manda­tory la­bels would high­light both high- and low-im­pact pro­duc­ers, in the same way, across mul­ti­ple prod­ucts. This would en­cour­age more peo­ple to think about their choices by ex­pos­ing them to the facts ev­ery time they are in the shops. And this re­ally mat­ters, be­cause we need more se­ri­ous ac­tion than in­di­vid­u­als sim­ply choos­ing a dif­fer­ent choco­late bar.

World­wide adop­tion of plant-based di­ets would mean we would need 3.1bn hectares less farm­land, an area the size of Africa. This would take pres­sure off the world’s last re­main­ing nat­u­ral ecosys­tems and could see vast ar­eas rewil­ded. Global green­house gas emis­sions would be 7bn tonnes a year lower. As trees re­grew on old fields, they would re­move an ad­di­tional 6bn tonnes of CO2 a year from the at­mos­phere over 20 years. In to­tal, this would mean a 25% re­duc­tion in emis­sions. Plant-based di­ets would also cut our ni­tro­gen and phos­pho­rus pol­lu­tion in half and wa­ter scarcity by a quar­ter, and sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce an­tibi­otic and pes­ti­cide use.

We can also use la­bels to turn smaller con­sumer changes into large en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits: be­cause a small num­ber of pro­duc­ers cre­ate a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of the im­pact, sim­ply avoid­ing high-im­pact pro­duc­ers can make a huge con­tri­bu­tion to emis­sion re­duc­tions.

Third, manda­tory en­vi­ron­men­tal la­bels would cre­ate in­for­ma­tion about the food sys­tem, and to­day this in­for­ma­tion is scarce. This could un­der­pin bet­ter pol­icy, par­tic­u­larly taxes or sub­si­dies linked to ac­tual en­vi­ron­men­tal harm. When choos­ing en­ergy-ef­fi­cient ap­pli­ances, con­sumers rank en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues about equally with fu­ture cost sav­ings. In the long term, bet­ter fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives will be re­quired in food too. These in­cen­tives would also en­cour­age pro­duc­ers to in­no­vate and change their prac­tices. This is pos­si­ble: more than $0.5tn of sub­si­dies is dis­trib­uted to farm­ers each year, but lit­tle of that money is linked to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

What we need now is for our lead­ers to im­ple­ment manda­tory en­vi­ron­men­tal la­belling. This would re­ward sus­tain­able com­pa­nies, en­able sus­tain­able eat­ing and sup­port bet­ter pol­i­cy­mak­ing. This rel­a­tively sim­ple but pow­er­ful change could be in­stru­men­tal in halt­ing and re­vers­ing the es­ca­lat­ing degra­da­tion of our im­per­illed planet.

Pho­to­graph: Jack Sul­li­van/Alamy

Pack­aged food has la­bels show­ing nu­tri­tional con­tent – but not en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Joseph Poore

Ex­am­ple of food la­bels show­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.