Written by Nera Kuljanic.
The way most food is produced is harming the planet. A profound change is needed, involving all agri-food actors. As consumers, we sit at the end of the agri-food chain. Our daily dietary choices implicitly support certain food systems, production methods and types of food. What could help us make better choices?
Our food comes with a climate cost. Food systems are responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of these are related to land use (such as deforestation) and on-farm production (related to fertilisers, cattle digestion and fuel use for example). Food transport, packaging and waste account for much less. Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement may become impossible if we continue the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions from food production alone. Beyond emissions, the environmental impacts of modern-day agriculture also include its water footprint, water eutrophication, soil degradation and biodiversity loss. Besides being an environmental issue, food waste is also unethical.
Europeans seem concerned about the environmental footprint of the food on their plates. For almost 60 % sustainability considerations have at least some influence on their food choices – so they would like to see such information on food products. At the same time, a lack of information, the challenge of identifying sustainable food options, and their limited availability, are the most frequent barriers to sustainable eating (besides price).
Environmental labelling is already part of certain European Union (EU) policies. For some types of products sold within the EU single market, such information is provided in a standardised way and is often mandatory. This helps to remove the information asymmetry between consumers and producers when it comes to the carbon cost of such products. Car manufacturers are required to state carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for all cars advertised or sold, and household electric appliances carry energy efficiency labels. A voluntary EU Ecolabel is awarded to products and services for environmental excellence throughout their life-cycle. When it comes to food, products carrying various labels and claims about their eco-friendly character abound on our supermarket shelves. While some labels focus on single ‘issues’ (water use, greenhouse gas emissions, packaging), others have a more holistic approach that encompasses the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability. The labels are issued by non-governmental organisations (NGOs, e.g. FAIRTRADE mark), or national authorities (e.g. EU organic logo). Similarly, private brands often make self-declared environmental claims on their products. Labels can also indicate ‘country of origin‘ and ‘sustainable fish‘. Existing food labels are overwhelmingly ‘endorsement labels’, which simply certify that a product has met certain pre-defined criteria, offering no possibility to compare between products. Such proliferation, with the absence of clear or shared underpinning standards, may also be considered greenwashing. Consequently, even the most motivated consumers can be at a loss when it comes to purchasing eco-friendly food.
Consumers need clear guidance and reliable information to play their part in reducing the environmental footprint of modern agriculture. Information or claims regarding products at the point of purchase (ecolabels) can help consumers understand their environmental impact from farm to fork, nudging them to make a more sustainable choice. Preliminary scientific evidence suggests that ecolabels could provide an effective policy tool to promote more environmentally friendly food choices.
Potential impacts and developments
For the sake of transparency, credibility and consumer trust, a single labelling system is needed to present consistent information based on clear criteria. A pilot project using front-of-pack environmental scores in the form of traffic light labels has been taking place in the EU and the United Kingdom since September 2021. Based on the results of the pilot, an ‘optimal environmental labelling system’ should be launched in 2022.
Designing a standard, applying it to products and overseeing its implementation is not straightforward. The format, position and types of claims made by labels are important. Sensible criteria for placing labels and claims on products are needed to provide useful guidance to both vegans and meat-eaters. However, the vast diversity of food products means trade-offs are inevitable. Agri-food chain complexity, the range of environmental impacts and ambiguous definitions of sustainability make it difficult to calculate the net environmental impact of a product precisely. Lastly, the consumer decision-making process is complex. These are some of the challenges to be addressed before ecolabels on foods can be implemented effectively.
Nevertheless, simply printing labels and logos is not a silver bullet that will translate consumer intentions to make more climate-friendly food choices into action. To ‘activate’ consumers, they need to be aware of ecolabels, know how to read them, and understand their purpose in the context of efforts towards living within planetary boundaries. This knowledge then needs to result in a behavioural change. Researchers identified many factors affecting our purchase and eating behaviour, including age, gender, education, socioeconomic status, food price, taste, habits and convenience. Consumer groups may respond to labels differently: those who are committed to making environmentally friendly choices in their daily lives will be more responsive to ecolabels, for example. There are other issues: a particular combination of an ecolabel and a health claim on a product may result in a conundrum, tempting a consumer to, for example, select a healthy product that is harmful for the environment or vice versa. It is crucial to changing behaviour to identify and address such barriers, real or perceived. Wide communication and education campaigns are therefore needed to ‘activate’ consumers. This will require substantial effort and resources.
Finally, the implementation of ecolabels involves putting a credible assessment system in place. Such a system is essential to support regulatory authorities when awarding labels and monitoring products and claims to prevent fraud. The assessment will have to select relevant environmental impacts across a huge diversity of production methods and products. It will involve developing analytical methods, choosing appropriate indicators and setting up data-collection standards.
This mammoth task is not without challenges. It is unclear to what extent environmentally friendly food choices translate into sustainability benefits for our planet. It is impossible to link a particular claim and product to a specific effect on the environment. There is also a big difference between a single outcome improvement and a product’s environmental impact across its full life-cycle. Biodegradable packaging or reduced freshwater use in production does not guarantee that a product’s net environmental impact is not harmful. A farmer practising regenerative agriculture to improve soil health can still be a net greenhouse gas emitter. Another challenge is the relatively frequent innovation in ingredients and product formulations, and the variability in sourcing ingredients. This means that a single product’s environment-related attributes can often vary. Another problem is data-related: claims are mostly made on the basis of perceived impacts or proxy variables, rather than specific product life-cycle assessments or on-the-ground measurements. If data collection is required from farm to fork, it may place a huge burden on small producers and suppliers.
Food labelling is already regulated in the EU, including the placing of nutrition and health claims. As announced in the EU farm to fork strategy, the European Commission is expected to propose a sustainable labelling framework in 2024, which will cover, in synergy with other relevant initiatives, the nutritional, climate, environmental and social aspects of food products. Introducing such standardised environmental labels on foods requires the issues outlined in the previous section to be addressed. Besides commitment from governments; farmers and business, researchers and NGOs also play key roles. For example, climate and agricultural research can provide inputs for developing models for impact assessment across food systems, and insights from consumer science can help set up effective labelling schemes. Such research can be funded through EU programmes including Horizon Europe. Consumer groups and other NGOs are important partners for communicating the tangible aspects of sustainability and the power of consumer action. Ecolabels can work in two ways. To consumers, they can signal eco-friendly food choices. To producers, they can be an incentive for sustainable farming, rethinking supply chains, and reformulating products. Nevertheless, ecolabels are not a panacea to transforming food systems. A broad set of policy measures is needed to make a sustainable food choice the easiest option for consumers. Actions have to be taken throughout the product life-cycle from farm to fork (or dump), combining regulatory initiatives, fiscal ‘carrots and sticks’, and information and education campaigns.
Read the complete briefing on ‘What if ecolabels could nudge us to choose greener food?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
Listen to policy podcast ‘What if ecolabels could nudge us to choose greener food?’ on YouTube.