Posted on Mon, October 26, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
1 Comments | Categories: Labeling, News, Current Events, Policy,
by intern Emily Stephenson
For many people, going to the grocery store has become an overload of choices and information. Theres fat-free, low-sugar, free-range, organic, added vitamins, fair-trade and natural, just to name a few of the confusing labels. As the Smart Choices program has been put on hold, and we no longer have to consider Froot Loops and spinach in the same category.
But according to the New York Times, the Swedish government is the first to attempt to make environmentally responsible shopping easier for its citizens. In the pilot program, certain products will receive a total carbon emissions amount based on calculations that take into account fertilizer, fuel for harvesting machinery, packaging and transport. For example a box of oatmeal reads: Climate declared: .87 kg CO2 per kg of product. Products also can get a general seal of approval from the government that takes into account growing conditions or harvesting practices. Under the new system, carrots pass, and so do beans and chicken, but not fish, tomatoes, cucumbers or beef.
The new initiative has been eye opening. Not only in terms of Swedens environmental ambitiousness (according to the article, Sweden has been a world leader in finding new ways to reduce emissions. It has vowed to eliminate the use of fossil fuel for electricity by 2020 and cars that run on gasoline by 2030). But also for producers and consumers. The Swedish burger chain Max discovered that 75 percent of its carbon footprint was created by the meat it served. And since the emissions counts started appearing on the menu, the sale of climate-friendly foods have risen 20 percent.
The Swedish effort grew out of a 2005 study by Swedens national environmental agency on how personal consumption generates emissions. Researchers found that 25 percent of national per capita emissions two metric tons per year was attributable to eating. The government realized that encouraging a diet that tilted more toward chicken or vegetables and educating farmers on lowering emissions generally could have an enormous impact.
Yet it seems in some ways, the new labeling system raises more questions than it answers. Without any context, what does .87 kg CO2 per kg of product really mean to the everyday shopper? Are there targets for consumers? Obviously the goal is none, but that is still unrealistic for most consumers. Without a target range, or guidelines, the numbers might just make consumers confused. Which is how a lot of people already feel when shopping for food. Or worse, guilty, as a few Swedes interviewed for the article admitted.
Its a commendable effort by the Swedish government. At least one government has finally acknowledged the link between food and emissions. And it is a good start to educating consumers about their choices. But we still need to learn a lot more. And judging by the always-entertaining comments on the article, weve got a long way to go.