Skip to main content

Carbon labelling on the cards

There are several close parallels between the prevailing debate on gaseous emissions in respect to foodstuffs and the lead up to the introduction of nutritional food labelling during the 1980s. Listing the nutrient contents, ingredients, volume percentages and recommended daily intakes (RDI) were, to a great extent, demand driven by consumers. There was also a recognition among health authorities and legislators, both here and in Europe, that such information, available in an understandable manner on product packaging, could assist in supporting better health and dietary choices and outcomes among the general public. 

A new departure

We have now reached the same stage in relation to carbon-input levels in the production of food, as we did 40 years ago in relation to nutrient labelling. Consumer demand brought legislative action. This is the clear direction of travel we now have in terms of making visible to consumers in an understandable manner, the totality of carbon input into food products. This can only be achieved through the development and mandatory implementation of an easily measurable means of facilitating carbon use comparisons between food products. 

Starting on this journey will require an understanding of the benefits of carbon data for food products as well as a commitment to the development of an objective, scientifically valid calculation and comparison process. Initially, a study of the feasibility of introducing carbon labelling in a reasonable timescale must be undertaken. Outcomes expected would include a full definition of the focus and scope of the initiative. In addition, and this is of primary importance, a feasibility study would need to outline the expected benefits of carbon labelling and its implications for the Irish agri-food industry. The actual practical mechanisms for the introduction of carbon labelling, including standardised measurement must be explored and decided upon. These objectives are by no means insurmountable, but they are challenging. 

Objective data

Verifiable emission data in relation to individual food products would be a pre-requisite to the introduction and reliable implementation of the system. This would require a cross section of collaborators with diverse expertise including agriculturalists, food scientists, technologists, environmental scientists and economists. With full collaboration and a reasonable degree of urgency, a full feasibility study should be completable within six months of the exercise being initiated and the various relevant personnel being identified. 

Ultimately, to make carbon labelling of food products a worthwhile proposition for consumers to make valid purchasing decisions across the plethora of globally sourced food products now available on supermarket shelves, the initiative would have to be embraced internationally, and most immediately, by the European Union. With the EU now fully committed to an ambitious carbon-reduction programme across all relevant activities including agriculture, transport and energy, it is reasonable to expect that the direction of travel will ultimately include food product carbon labelling. The likelihood is that such an undertaking is already under serious consideration. A feasibility study on Irish food products would put Ireland, and particularly our agri-food interests, in a soundly based, forefront position in any future deliberations and negotiations on the introduction of EU-wide carbon labelling. From a practical viewpoint, the study might focus initially on Ireland’s dairy and beef produce. However, crops, in particular cereals and horticultural products, which may become more important in the future in response to climate change, should also be considered. 

Leading the carbon agenda

The proposed feasibility study would provide an informed basis for a systematic deliberation on the potential implementation, both nationally and internationally, of carbon food labelling by the agri-food industry. Importantly, it would link gaseous emissions to consumer concerns, leading to the purchase of food products with low carbon footprints, such as those produced in Ireland. The proposed strategy should be driven by the belief that it is better to lead change rather than be led by it. 

There can be little doubt but some form of carbon labelling of food is inevitable, most likely within the coming decade. Nutritional labelling is now commonplace, with many food products displaying the wording ‘fat free’, ‘sugar free’, or ‘salt free’ on their packaging. Indeed, Guinness is now promoting stout 

with alcohol content of zero per cent. In the foreseeable future, food companies are likely to differentiate their products by carbon labelling, with a view to gaining a competitive advantage. Carbon labelling could be envisaged as an extension of the current nutritional labelling system and need not be an excessively costly factor. 

The benefits for Irish food producers and processors will ultimately hinge, not only on being a pioneering advocate of carbon labelling, just as we have been with Bord Bia’s Origin Green sustainability programme. It will also be of benefit as we continue to prove that our food-production systems, across, dairy, beef, sheep, grain and horticulture, are among the most carbon efficient on the planet. Teagasc’s ongoing work in this regard will be of huge importance in providing the scientific proof and validation, not only of our low-carbon food-production credentials, but ultimately, right along the processing food chain as our agri-food companies adopt carbon calculation criteria.  There are already early actors in exploring the viability and visibility of carbon food labelling. Portugal has developed a system which highlights the carbon input status of fresh milk. Denmark is intensively researching the practicalities of carbon food labelling

For Ireland, the Food Island, verifiable baselines in respect of gaseous emissions by bovines, in particular, are an imperative. There are downsides in the initiative if our carbon input levels do not stand up to close scrutiny. However, all research to date justifies a belief that we have everything to gain from being an early adopter and advocate of universal food carbon labelling.