Over 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.
But 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)