The COP24 United Nations Climate Change Conference wrapped up last week, and while the outcome of the conference was generally positive, the world is still facing an increasingly dire future for our planet.
One change people can make to help save the world is altering what they eat. Transitioning away from meat to a more plant-based diet can help reduce the global greenhouse emissions that come from food production. And a new study from the University of Technology Sydney and Duke University shows that simply labeling food with its carbon footprint may be a way to get people to eat less meat.
It turns out, many people don’t understand the carbon consequences of their food choices, and the study found that they greatly underestimate the carbon footprint of the foods they eat.
“With an appliance such as a heater you can feel the energy used and see an electricity bill at the end of the month, so the impact is quite salient, whereas the impact of food production is largely invisible,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Adrian Camilleri in a statement.
So the study created a carbon footprint labeling system for food similar to the five star energy ratings given to appliances. From the press release announcing the study’s findings:
They presented 120 participants with a choice of soups to buy. When the soups had a carbon footprint label, participants bought fewer beef soups and more vegetable soups than when there was no label provided.
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 thus reduce environmental impacts.
While not comprehensive, this study fits in with previous market research that shows grocery shoppers today want more information about the products they buy. Millennials in particular care about more social issues like animal welfare, fair trade, and, it would stand to reason, environmental impact.
If carbon footprint labeling were to catch on, this would presumably be a boon to alternative or “fake” meat companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Seattle Food Tech, which are creating plant-based simulacra of our favorite meats. But more importantly, it looks like a small thing like a food label could have a big impact on our planet.