GMA Worries About Carbon Footprint of Food

On Oct. 23 ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired back-to-back segments promoting climate change and, strangely enough, slamming hamburgers. First, George Stephanopoulos worried that Americans were becoming too complacent about global warming and discussed possible climate solutions with “Superfreakonomics” author Stephen Dubner. Dubner suggested choosing a kangaroo burger over a beef burger as a possible solution. Then Stephanopoulos interviewed Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and discussed the carbon footprint left behind by a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese.


Pollan said that “you’re eating oil” when you’re eating a burger: "You need oil to make the fertilizer to grow the corn. You need petroleum to make the pesticides to grow the corn. You need oil to move it all around the country."


Factoring in production, processing, and shipment, Pollan claimed that a quarter-pounder cheeseburger amounts to 26 ounces of oil. “What it tells you is that the carbon footprint of that burger is really big,” said Pollan, “The result is a product that takes a huge environmental toll and obviously takes a health toll as well.”


Interest in the carbon footprint of individual food products has been growing ever since the British government announced two years ago that it was developing a plan to stamp foods with carbon labels. Many other countries have considered it as well, including Thailand and France – even California has been lobbying for it. The latest venture into carbon labeling has been in Sweden, which revamped its dietary guidelines over the summer in order to give equal weight to climate and health. The New York Times covered the story in its Oct. 23 article titled “Sweden Looks to Diet to Cut Global Warming.”


If you thought it was difficult to figure out how many different colored vegetables to eat, now the Swedish need to remember to “favor carrots over cucumbers and tomatoes” because “unlike carrots, the latter two must be grown in heating greenhouses here, consuming energy.”


And the new “carbon labels” don’t make it any easier. A box of Swedish oatmeal, for example, has a label that reads, “Climate declared: .87 kg CO2 per kg of product.” Feel enlightened yet? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.


A British survey conducted earlier this year discovered that “just 28% of shoppers in the UK chain Boots knew that a carbon label related to climate change. Almost half confused the label with fair trade.”


And, even if a consumer miraculously understands the label, he or she then has to compute whether it is good or bad. BBC News gave the example of Innocent Drinks, a British-based smoothie company, to illustrate the mathematical hoops a shopper would have to jump through:


The company states that the UK government recommends a target of 7.9 tonnes of annual consumption of CO2 in 2009, which means 21kg per person per day; drinking a smoothie means consuming 2,700g of CO2, or 8% of our daily allowance.


Got that?

Of course, as BBC also points out, the calculations are pointless “unless you have another product on the same shelf to compare it with.” On the other hand, it might not matter anyway since most food companies have different methodologies for computing their carbon consumption and so most labels are incomparable.

But assuming that there are several labels and they are comparable, even then it’s probably worthless. As Phil Lempert pointed out during an interview with the online magazine FLYP, a food’s “footprint” constantly changes:

The carbon footprint for a particular product, at a particular point in time, is different than it will be in twenty minutes, or a day, or a month later. So, if we look at the carbon footprint of imported strawberries in January versus in March, the number is going to be different … Until we can have a bullet-proof standard that consumers can really rely upon, most of these logos and labels are really pretty meaningless.

And this entire train of thought is based on the presumption that shoppers are looking at the label to begin with. Since most don’t even bother to look at the nutrition label much less heed it, it’s safe to say that even fewer would take the time to quantify carbon emissions.

So that begs the question: Why hasn’t the European food industry fought against yet another labeling regulation that could turn off customers? Quite simply because it’s doing the exact opposite: it’s a marketing goldmine. A UK survey for the chip manufacturer Walkers “revealed that more than half of the 1,000 people interviewed were more likely to buy a product with a carbon label, and 69 percent thought the label demonstrated corporate commitment to reducing carbon emissions” – regardless of the actual score of the product.

It’s the perfect example of greenwashing, marketing products as “green” in order to boost consumption – and it’s being facilitated by the Swedish government and funded by its taxpayers.

With the media’s love for government regulation and the government’s love to regulate, it probably won’t be long before Americans are trying to work out the math in our supermarkets.