According to BBC Future, the UK started mandating cafes and restaurants with more than 250 staff members to list the calories next to each dish on their menus earlier this year.
The Mexican restaurant company Wahaca initially opposed the new rule, but afterward went above and beyond by adding information about its meals’ carbon footprints to the additional menu labeling.
As reported by BBC Future, co-founder of Wahaca Thomasina Miers remarked, “When the government started informing us that we had to put calories on our menus, we thought it was a wonderful opportunity to start talking about carbon.” Political decisions are made regarding food. If we start to understand this and start speaking our opinions, we will have a lot of power as consumers.
Two-thirds of respondents to a 2020 international survey of 10,540 people in eight nations—Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States—supported carbon labeling.
According to BBC Future, the global food industry is responsible for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions created by people, therefore what we eat has a significant effect on the climate. Plant-based diets account for 29% of all emissions, while animal-based foods are responsible for 57% of emissions but just 20% of calories.
The UK’s Climate Change Committee has suggested that in order to reach the country’s climate ambitions, meat and dairy consumption be decreased by 20% by 2030 and by 35% by 2050.
At Wahaca, meals with a CO2e (or CO2 equivalent) level of 0.6kg or less are designated as low carbon. An example of this would be a sweet potato burrito. Other foods, such as grilled chicken club quesadillas, are categorized as medium-carbon, while high-carbon foods, like chargrilled beef burritos, have a larger carbon footprint.
The growing, moving, storing, and cooking of the ingredients are all taken into account in the emissions calculations.
How Can Carbon Labels and Climate-Friendly Default Options on Restaurant Menus Contribute to the Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Dining? was a study from earlier this year. According to The Conversation, psychologist Ann-Katrin Betz and colleagues at the University of Würzburg looked at how the inclusion of carbon labels and the modification of menu items that are shown most prominently had an impact on people’s food choices. The study was printed in the PLOS Climate journal.
According to BBC Future, the researchers created nine fictitious restaurant menus for the study. Colors from traffic lights were used to indicate each dish’s carbon footprint: red for high, amber for medium, and green for low. Dishes with reduced carbon emissions were featured more prominently on some menus than other dishes.
The menus were available in four alternative configurations, including high- and low-emission default menu items, both with and without carbon labeling.
The CO2 equivalent was almost a third lower on menus that by default featured lower emissions foods. The addition of the carbon labels alone caused a less dramatic decline.
Health Behaviors Researcher at the University of Oxford Cristina Stewart and Behavioral Science Research Fellow at the University of Oxford Rachel Pechey wrote in The Conversation that when people were given menus with the low-emission option as the default, the share of high-emission choices decreased significantly and amounted to an average of 31.7% lower emissions per dish. Similar results showed that when diners were provided menus with carbon labels, the average emissions per dish were 13.5% lower than when no carbon labeling was applied.
According to BBC Future, no country has made environmental food labeling mandatory yet, although France is developing a global labeling system called Eco-Score.
According to Michael Clark, a postdoctoral researcher in the Livestock, Environment and People program at the University of Oxford, there are about 120 eco-labels on the market, ranging from Fair Trade to organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified. This information was provided to BBC Future.
It is quite difficult for customers to make those food decisions on their own unless we have a single, standardized metric.
According to Clark, we should consider the impact of food production on land, water, and biodiversity from a broad perspective rather than focusing solely on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it produces.
People now pay much closer attention to their diet. According to Robin May, Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK’s Food Standards Agency, who was quoted in the Financial Times earlier this year, “We know that a very significant portion of the population has changed their diet, or tried to change their diet in the last 12 to 18 months in order to become more sustainable.” Customers have a right to accurate, clear food labeling, May continued.