Author: Lode Verbruggen & Bieke Vandaele
Can we set-up a nutri-score equivalent to evaluate the environmental footprint of our food?
Guaranteeing food availability without pressuring our environment is a challenge. As governments and the industry react slowly, consumers take responsibility in tackling this challenge. While consumers use food labels to set guidelines for themselves when buying food, the need for an all-inclusive label arises. Is there a way to label our food based on its complete environmental footprint, just like we do for sugar- and fat-content?
How to evaluate food sustainability?
A holistic approach to evaluate the environmental impact of products is key to making responsible consumption easy for all consumers. Labels such as ‘bio’, ‘organic’, ‘vegan’ or ‘local’ can help consumers to make informed decisions when shopping for food.
Unfortunately, the reliability of the existing labels is unclear and ambiguous. Is choosing labelled products really reducing the environmental impact? Consumers judge the credibility of a label based on the organisation behind it before purchasing products. Of course, organisations like Fairtrade, MSC, UTZ or Rainforest Alliance all intend to protect one specific biotope. A holistic approach to environmental footprint is, however, still lacking.
To achieve a more comprehensive and systematic approach, the FAO (UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization) defines 4 areas of action: evidence, dialogue, tools and practice change. (1) As such, transparent communication, both on information regarding the food industry as well as on the procedures that are used to measure environmental impact, will be essential for an all-exhaustive sustainability label.
First steps towards an eco-indicator
The methodology most commonly used to assess environmental impact is life cycle analysis (LCA). LCA calculates the footprint of individual products for a range of indicators like greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, eutrophication, etc. Currently LCA results aren’t fully comparable as the sourcing of information, the assumptions made and the selection of indicators for the calculation differ from study to study. To allow for a better comparison, different institutions are developing a fixed framework and methodology.
In the EU, there are 2 organisations worth mentioning: The Life Cycle Initiative by the UN environment programme and the Product/Organisation Environmental Footprint (PEF/OEF) by the European commission’s joint research centre (JRC). (2) (3) The PEF/OEF aims to define a methodology and database that incorporate all industry sectors, allowing companies to map their environmental impact from cradle-to-grave (from the raw materials to waste). To have a better understanding of the vision of PEF/OEF, watch their video by following this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTK59eseDBQ
Time to take action
The success of this story depends on the goodwill and transparency of companies. Will companies be willing to understand their full production cycle AND will they be open to communicate about it? With consumers looking to make more informed choices on their buying process, transparency will be more successful than keeping the books closed. An eco-indicator could finally push the food industry to take the necessary steps towards more sustainability.
(1) Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations (2014), Building a common vision for sustainable food and agriculture, principles and approaches
(4) Food sustainability: Diverging interpretations, Aiking, Harry; de Boer, Joop. British Food Journal; Bradford Vol. 106, Issue 5, (2004)