By switching to ratings based on both the environmental impact and price of food products, environmental labelling would enable consumers to make more informed decisions about their purchases, and would remove biases against organic or higher quality products, said Hayo van der Werf, a research scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.
Organic looks worse?
He suggested current environmental labelling schemes do not give an accurate picture of organic products’ impact: “When you express results per kilogram, often you don’t find any differences – or sometimes you find larger impacts per kilogram of organic product than per kilogram of conventional product.”
A paper by van der Werf and Thibault Salou, recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, calculated that, per tonne of live weight, organically farmed pigs had a eutrophication impact equivalent to 31kg of phosphate and a climate change impact equivalent to 3.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide,, compared to 14kg of phosphate and 2.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide for conventionally farmed pigs by the same measure.
In contrast, when using an economic value of 1,000 euros of live weight, the organic pigs’ impact fell to 13kg of phosphate and 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the conventional impact stayed the same. The paper gave similar examples for broiler poultry production.
“You can think of other quality products, not just organic. You can have a basic cheese, or you can have a fine cheese which has a much better taste, but if you just compare them on a kilogram basis or a protein basis, you don’t capture this quality difference,” said van der Werf.
He believes economic value units offer a simpler way to account for quality than alternative systems: “There is some literature in how to take into account food quality, but quality is very complicated, because it’s multi-criteria. On the nutritional aspect you already have a lot of parameters to consider, and then there is taste, how it looks, and so on.”
Reducing net impact
Economic value ratings would also prevent a potential “rebound effect”, where consumers may choose lower-impact food products and spend less in total on food – but then use the money saved to pay for other products and services which will have an environmental impact of their own, resulting in little or no net benefit, according to van der Werf.
“If a consumer wants to reduce his impacts, the game is to spend your money with as little impact as possible. If you use the economic value functional unit, you can use the same functional unit for all products – which is not the case otherwise when you want to compare a food product to a trip abroad, for example; all these products have different functional units,” he said.
Van der Werf acknowledged an economic value-based labelling system would not be perfect, and might have challenges around implementation – but would still be better than current systems. While some organic producers have been receptive to the proposal, he said there has not yet been much enthusiasm for the concept in the wider food industry.
“It’s very interesting to observe that the industry is not very happy about this – they don’t like this to be too transparent, and prefer to have specific functional units so that you can compare pork meat with chicken meat, but not pork with salad, or driving a car. One of the reasons why this idea, which seems so obvious, has not broken through, is because there is some resistance from the players in the market,” said van der Werf.