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Are Food Mile Labels Misleading?

air-freiht.jpgOver the past year, Britain’s grocers have begun affixing an air freighted sticker to food flown in from abroad. Ever since locavorism began to gain ground in this decade (I’d peg it at 2005, but many of you may differ), there has been a murmur about the possibility of labeling food to reflect its environmental cost. In North America the discussion remains a murmur, but many European countries have begun to take steps to help consumers make the more carbon responsible choice when browsing the produce aisle.

One pioneer was Tesco, the British supermarket giant who began affixing the airplane sticker to imports in 2007. But recently, Tesco announced that it is removing the sticker. But why?

Many suppliers from third world nations like Kenya and Uganda protested the measure as a demonization of imports. Agricultural leaders in these countries – along with a growing number of food industry experts – argued that a food item’s means of travel is only one consideration among many. What about the all-natural fertilizers used at strawberry farms in Kenya? What about the low-tech hand-hoeing done at spinach farms in Uganda? Any rational evaluation would show that an organically grown, freighted item had a lower carbon cost than its local but synthetically fertilized or greenhouse grown equivalent. Some even argue that labeling should reflect socially beneficial choices. Consumers should have the option to support a grassroots collective of female farmers in a poor area over agribusiness in an industrialized nation. By avoiding imports, some economists argue, we are causing harm to delicate industries in countries that need the income.

Carbon LabelBut Tesco is hardly putting aside eco-labeling. In response to the criticisms, the company plans on calculating the total carbon cost of their generic brand items and creating new environmentally descriptive tags. In doing so, they hope to encourage more debate about what, exactly is the most responsible food choice in terms of carbon emissions. Some brands already include carbon-focused labeling. Take for example, Walker’s Crisps (seen at left). The printed symbol indicates that 75 grams of CO2 were expended during the manufacture and transport of this product. Add to this the appropriate fraction of carbon expenditure by the grocery store and the consumer’s trip home, and you have a very accurate reading of the chip’s environmental cost (saturated fat, of course, is a different matter entirely…)

This type of carbon labeling is extremely heartening, if still imperfect. Hopefully North American grocers will become inspired and begin to push for similar labeling here. One option for those of us who want to lobby for this type of consideration would be to contact favorite food brands and express our interest.

(Air freight sticker courtesy of Tesco; Walker’s Crisp image via TerraPass.com)

4 comments
  1. Russell

    Meredith,

    You’ve raised a great issue, one that our CarbonFree label (http://www.carbonfund.org/site/pages/businesses/category/CarbonFree%20Products/) helps to address. I’m sure you also saw the recent New Yorker article on this subject – about how looking just at the distance the food traveled can be misleading when it comes to calculating carbon footprints.

    In any case, CarbonFree labeling is one solution to this problem – it takes into account the entire lifecycle of a product, not just bits and pieces.

    Best,

    Russell
    Carbonfund.org

  2. Frank Jones

    I’ve seen several variations on this article recently. It seems to imply that eating organically grown Kenyan produce airfreighted to the UK, where it is out of season, is comparatively lower impact than trying to grow the produce out of season in the UK. Does this argument seem a little cumbersome to you? The qualifications for having a lower impact are all predicated on eating food out of season. It’s clear to me that the best choices would be seasonal foods and preserved local items.

    Eating fresh African strawberries in the UK in January will never be sustainable. It just doesn’t add up.

    Airplanes are not a low carbon technology. Rationalizing away the damage done is a losing game.

  3. Meredith Melnick

    Thanks for your input, Russel! I hadn’t seen the New Yorker article, but was glad to have a look after you mentioned it.

    And Frank, thanks for the article on strawberries. We are in total agreement that in-season, local produce is best and should be the priority. I think you’ve raised an important issue, especially regarding produce – the primary example used in my article (and many others). But most people (even food bloggers) don’t eat a 100% local diet. I know I use olive oil, coffee, tea, liquors like vodka and gin, and a few other specialty items that could not possibly be local for me. It is for these items that I would like a carbon count.

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