Experts Want to Label Foods That Are Environmentally Unfriendly

Denmark has been toying with the idea of an environmental impact label on food products for years, and in the wake of the latest UN climate change report, the idea is getting renewed attention.
organic groceries labelled on a shelf
Image: Randahl J. Jenson/USAF

You already consider a lot of factors when buying your groceries—calories, fat, price, brand—so why not have a label that also tells you the toll each product took on the environment to produce? It’s an idea Denmark has been toying with for a few years, but it’s gotten renewed attention in the wake of the devastating United Nations climate change report published last week.

“What you pick up with your fork is a major factor and a powerful way that an individual can fight climate change,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, a policy specialist in the food and agriculture program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a phone interview. “About 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock production, and that’s about on par with the transportation sector, so it’s a huge source of emissions.”


Jahagirdar told me that even though our food choices are an immediate and influential contributor to climate change, a lot of people don’t realize this, which is why she thinks a labeling system could be helpful. She acknowledged that it might not be possible to get every single relative detail on a label, something that has slowed down Denmark’s progress towards making a universal system.

"Our goal is to develop an accurate label. We must include every piece of information so products like plant-based substitutes for ground meat has information on the climate impact of the soy in the product which is produced in South America," Morten Høyer, director of the the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, told CNN. "Things like these are difficult to calculate, so we have a worthy challenge ahead of us before we can say with certainty that we have the right solution for a climate label."

But Jahagirdar said we already have ways of calculating the impact certain products have, such as the life-cycle assessment, and that even a simplified version of this could help people make more informed choices.

Labels, though, are only as effective as the person reading them, according to Peggy Liu, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. Liu studies consumer habits and behaviors and told me that, unless someone is already looking for a label, they’re not likely to be influence by the information.

“There seems to be evidence from lab studies that labels have a small impact on food buying decisions and that this impact occurs among consumers who are motivated to pay attention to labels (e.g., dieters, who pay more attention to nutrition labels),” Liu told me via email.

There’s been some research that shows changing how the information is displayed can encourage more people to read the label, and in general negative messaging (like this is how much saturated fat is in this product) is more persuasive than positive messaging (like here’s all the vitamin A in this product), which could bode well for the troublesome labels of climate change impact. But Liu said it’s unlikely to persuade someone unless they’re already trying to make more sustainable choices.

“I think that such labels would change consumers' buying behavior under very specific circumstances, like when making decisions in advance rather than in the moment of temptation, and for specific individuals, like those who care strongly about environmental impact,” Liu told me.