Food Labels in Sweden Reflect Carbon Impact
Reading food labels can be overwhelming: fat, salt, calories...carbon? According to a New York Times article, To Cut Global Warming, Swedes Study Their Plates, in Sweden, people have one more factor to evaluate when buying food in the grocery store or at some restaurants: carbon impact. The country's main organic certification program is also incorporating low-emissions standards, which will no longer include items like most hothouse tomatoes.
Measuring carbon impact requires complex calculations--it may take even more work to make carbon impact simple and meaningful enough for most consumers to understand and act accordingly. The country's top burger chain, Max, claims that already, since the carbon counts started appearing on the menu, sales of lower-impact items have increased 20%.
The conscious consumer movement struggles to navigate between the lack of public information and information overload. Just think of the rather disheartening news that New York's restaurant menu calorie counts don't affect the number of calories patrons order...or may influence them to consume slightly more calories. I've actually found the menu calorie counts to be kind of illuminating on my trips to New York, but that may be because I don't see them every day. There's one factor that never ceases to be real to all of us: money. Until the true cost of growing, processing, packaging, shipping, and selling food is reflected in its price, it's going to be hard to drive home which products really are better choices on an individual and planetary level. Since about 25% of carbon emissions produced by people in industrialized nations is related to food choices, we need to figure this out. Yet food is wrapped up in culture, emotion, and habit...how is crowding more information onto ever-more-informative labels going to influence those of us in cultures that are increasingly ignoring basic common dietary sense?
I think the answer lies in a hybrid approach. More information is always good, but it's the difference between reading a recipe for a souffle and watching someone construct one. That's why the Michael Pollans and Martha Stewarts of the world attract such attention. Food is almost a bogeyman these days: it is grown in shadowy places, processed with obscure ingredients, and our desire for it seems unable to be tamed. I think the new heroes of cable--the chefs and reality would-be chefs--are so popular because they are in charge of food, making complicated miracles with it, reaching out to others with the universal language of taste. How many of us can say the same of our diets? For right now, Sweden will have to be our role model for carbon impact labeling. Hopefully they will work out some of the standardization difficulties and the practice can spread to the US.