There’s some good news with the bad when it comes to consumers making more planet-friendly food choices.
Scientists warn that the carbon emissions linked to food production are a recipe for global-warming disaster, but there’s some good news with the bad when it comes to consumers making more planet-friendly food choices.
That’s according to a new study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. What researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia discovered is that while consumers underestimate wildly the carbon impact of food products, they respond well and make different choices when they are given information about emissions in user-friendly terms.
“Although consumers’ poor understanding of the food system is a barrier to reducing energy use and (greenhouse gas) GHG emissions, it also represents a promising area for simple interventions such as a well-designed carbon label,” the authors concluded.
Between 19 percent and 29 percent of GHG emissions come from food production, with beef and lamb the biggest contributors, the UTS team said. Many consumers know this and want to reduce the climate impacts of their diets, but they don’t always have a clear understanding of their choices.
“If you ask people to guess the difference between items such as beef and vegetable soup on the environment they assume there is not much difference, but beef soup creates more than 10 times the amount of greenhouse gases than vegetable soup,” said Dr. Adrian Camilleri, an assistant professor at UTS and lead author of the study. It was conducted in collaboration with Duke University in the United States.
That makes for something of a blind spot for people who readily lower their thermostats or bike commute instead of driving, but don’t have the data they need to evaluate day-to-day food choices.
The study findings suggest that’s all too true. The researchers asked more than 1,000 people to estimate the amount of energy that’s embedded in 19 different foods and 18 common appliances, and then quantify the amount of corresponding GHG emissions.
People consistently underestimated the energy and emissions impact for both categories, but showed a much greater knowledge gap with the food. Yet the UTS team also wanted to see if providing basic information would change behaviors – something like a five-star energy rating for appliances that consumers are familiar with seeing.
So in a separate stage of their research, they gave different soups to 120 participants. Those products had a carbon footprint label, and when they were used in the study, the consumers chose the lower impact soups.
“The research suggests that the introduction of carbon footprint labels on food items could be a simple intervention to increase understanding of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from food production, and so reduce environmental impacts,” the UTS team said.
What’s more, it appears that people find a GHG food label motivating, and it’s more likely that consumers will make a shift to healthier, sustainable plant-based diets when given the right tools.
“The choices we make at the dinner table can have a significant impact on global challenges such as climate change, and our research shows consumers are keen to make that choice,” Camilleri said.