Do we need carbon labels on food?

Should we label and market our food with carbon in mind?

Caroline Drummond from Linking Environment and Farming chaired a session at yesterday’s (31 May) Greenpower conference on climate change and the food industry.  She reports on some of the highlights…

The challenge is large: Associating carbon values and costs with food… including growing, developing the seed varieties, feed for cattle, storing, transporting, cooking, waste and much more. 

But where does the carbon life cycle of a product start and finish? How do we value the choices people make in monetary or impact terms?  How do we change people’s buying habits? How do we make it easy for people to make the right choice and balance nutritional needs with environmental and social expectations? 

Is the answer in new labels or should it be the methodology that is consistent and embedded in existing labels?

Speaking in the session I chaired were Rowland Hill from the CSR team at Marks and Spencer, Dr Anne-Marie Warris the Global Product Manager from LRQA and Euan Murray the Strategy Manager from The Carbon Trust.

Rowland Hill demonstrated the growing interest in climate issues by consumers and highlighted the range of approaches for changing behaviour including:
• fiscal interventions (tax – such as car licensing) 
• market editing (taking action to restrict availability or stop a product on the shelf)
• lifestyle education and
• consumer labels

But it was the labelling issues that the debate and questions mainly focused on with Anne-Marie Warris reinforcing the need for sound information behind the label to make the standards credible with consumers.  For this purpose Dr Warris put forward the case for third-party verification to demonstrate robustness and build trust.

Euan Murray highlighted the clear distinction needed between the importance of developing the methodology to establish a framework for the ensuring consistency and the second phase of marketing.

One thing is certain: The debate is in the public arena, and with the announcement of the Carbon Trust and DEFRA’s work on how to measure emissions in the whole life cycle of a product from its manufacture to packaging, distribution and disposal, we should soon be able to start to be consistent in the measurement of the carbon embodied in the product.

But one of the issues that faces the industry in communicating messages to consumers is ‘what about the trade offs?’. 

A carbon-neutral product may not meet the standards of animal welfare, ethical trading or environmental care increasingly expected by consumers and for that reason we need to be careful not to trade off one element for another. 

Integrating the choices for consumers means we need to set the boundaries for developing the carbon journey and ensure we have robust data sets. We need clarity in the message, defining what is the question we are asking of the whole carbon debate. To me this has to be ‘how do we reduce our impact on the environment?’

Personally, I am still to be convinced of the need for a label demonstrating the carbon value of a product but I do see the need for consistency in the parameters and values set for the methodology to assess the carbon footprint. 

But the issue is a highly diverse one with carbon offsetting, carbon sequestration, our diets and lifestyle choices all complicating the calculations. 

At a farm level we can all do our bit. The philosophy behind LEAF’s work and the development of Integrated Farm Management has been for efficiency across the whole farm.

Energy efficiency and new technical developments are what we need alongside the ability to clarify our part as an industry in the food debate. 

Added to that, communication is key and that is where the opportunity of events like Open Farm Sunday and visits to demonstration farms all add to the importance of getting a better understanding of consumers concerns at the same time as stating the farming case in this ever changing world.