Shopper reading product label

The paper found that many meat alternatives had a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based equivalents.

A landmark new methodology created by scientists at Oxford University in a bid to create standardised carbon food labelling has been questioned by meat industry bodies.

The research, published this week in scientific journal PNAS, assesses the environmental impacts of 57,000 multi-ingredient food products – and was described by Oxford researchers as a key step in “improving informed decision-making by consumers on the environmental impacts of food and drink products”.

Described as “the first time a transparent and reproducible method has been developed to assess the environmental impacts of multi-ingredient products”, the  methodology quantifies the differences in environmental impact between different products. It found that those made of fruits, vegetables, sugar and flour were of a lower impact than those made of meat, fish and cheese. Dried beef products such as jerky were found to have the highest environmental impact.

The paper also found that many meat alternatives had a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based equivalents.

But while Jon Foot, head of environment at AHDB, said the study had made “extensive progress in assessing the wider environmental impact of different foods”, he pointed out limitations to the research, such as the “lack of consideration for carbon sequestration, which disproportionately impacts beef and lamb”. A lack of clear information around the sourcing of some products also meant the accuracy of the data “could vary greatly across suppliers and products”, he added.

“What’s more, the greenhouse gas emissions are not lifecycle assessed (farm to shelf), with consideration only being taken for the primary ingredients within the products, and not processing, packing or transport of the overall product,” he said.

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Concerns about how the research would affect the farming sector were also raised by Phil Bicknell, head of business development at the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock. He said it had the potential to “do a disservice to some positive steps being taken in the UK by the food industry and by farmers”.

Another concern from the meat industry was that the study did not accurately include all analysis on origin, due to the researchers’ claim of a lack of product information on some packs.

“There are large factors that simply haven’t been included in the calculations, for example the origin and method of production of ingredients is not accounted for,” said a spokeswoman for the British Meat Processors Association. “Brazilian beef has a very different eco-profile to British beef.”

The research considered greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and eutrophication potential (when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other life) and combined these four scores into a single estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of product.

“These types of foods make up most of the supermarket shopping that we do, but until now there was no way of directly comparing their impact on the environment,” said Peter Scarborough, professor of population health at the University of Oxford.

“This work could support tools that help consumers make more environmentally sustainable food purchasing decisions,” he added. “More importantly, it could prompt retailers and food manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of the food supply, thereby making it easier for all of us to have healthier, more sustainable diets.” 

One key finding from the research was that when looking at specific types of food products, researchers often found large variations in climate impact. For food types such as meat, lasagne, cookies, biscuits and pesto sauces, lower-impact products often had one half to one tenth the environmental impact of higher-impact variants of the same products. Publishing this type of information on packs, the researchers suggested, could enable consumers to make smaller swaps in eating habits rather than entire diet changes.

Additionally, when comparing environmental impact to nutritional value, products that were more nutritious tended to be more sustainable, other than in some cases – such as sugary beverages, which are low impact and have low nutritional scores.

However, this assertion was questioned by Bicknell. “How can sugar-coated cereals and fizzy drinks be better for us than nutrient-rich, locally produced meat?” he said. “We know meat, eggs and dairy are highly nutritious sources of protein, which many of the foods with lower greenhouse gas impact scores in this report are not.

“There seems to be a gap when looking at the issue of nutrient quality, using one single figure to describe very different foods. It strikes me that meat or dairy products can provide more of the nutrients needed in a healthy diet than many of the foods listed.”

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His comments were echoed by the BMPA, which argued that “the resulting list of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ foods could steer consumers away from healthy, whole foods towards less healthy, highly processed foods. This is illustrated by the fact that fizzy drinks, chips and onion rings score more favourably than cheese, meat and nuts”.

AHDB’s Foot added that “of most significance and concern to AHDB is how the results show that ultra-processed foods score much more favourably than quality whole foods, which is somewhat alarming and raises questions over their value in future use for eco-labelling to influence good consumer choices”.

The study comes amid a growing appetite for standardised eco-labelling on food in the UK. Lidl, IGD, and Foundation Earth are among organisations to have launched eco-labelling schemes over the past year, while Red Tractor is also planning its own version.

Individual brands have also introduced green labelling over recent years. For example, natural energy drink company Tenzing introduced a measure in 2021. 

“It’s about transparency – carbon labelling should be mandatory across the industry,” said Tenzing CEO Huib van Bockel. “It would force companies to disclose the environmental impact of their food production methods, and arm consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed choices when doing their weekly shop.” 

Plant milk giant Oatly has also been listing its CO2 emissions on packs and has called on mandatory and standardised labelling for several years, according to its head of sustainability, Shaunagh Duncan. “We need to give consumers confidence in what they’re buying, but without more brands joining us in showing their numbers, it is not easy for consumers to compare and contrast the environmental impact of their food and drink choices. Oxford University’s in-depth study is a step in the right direction towards bringing about the food system shift that is so urgently needed.”

An industry-wide eco-label for food and drink has potential, but getting there may be anything but harmonious