Could “low-carbon footprint” become the new “organic”?
Photo: Getty

I’m one of those people who can’t let go of meat altogether, but I try to eat less because of its carbon footprint. A new study hints that more people would do the same if they realized how bad their food was for the planet.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change Monday, consisted of two parts. The first part involved finding out how much people knew about the environmental impact of consuming a variety of foods, from a cup of milk to a tofu steak. In the second part, the researchers tried to gauge how a label laying out different food items’ carbon footprints could change consumer behavior.

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The results were straightforward: People really underestimated the energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing their food. But when they’re made aware, they change their behaviors.

When it came to nuts, milk, cheese, vegetables, and fruit, the 1,032 participants in the first part of the study didn’t do a good job estimating how much energy was used or greenhouse gases were emitted to produce the food. They were more aware of the differences between meats and non-meats, but they still underestimated red meat’s carbon footprint “by the widest margin,” per the study.

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The participants were from the U.S., but most were white. If these findings hold across demographics in the U.S., a solution could be to use effective labeling to help people understand the scope of the issue, the authors argue.

Our food choices carry serious weight. Livestock—including cattle, pigs, chicken, and more—are responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions we emit, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Most of this comes from the methane cows burp while digesting their food and the land use changes associated with animal production.

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So there’s good reason to want to change people’s habits. The team of researchers, who work for the University of Technology Sydney and Duke University, even designed a label for some soups that offers information on the products’ energy and climate impacts.

This is what the label looked like for the beef soups aka bad for the planet.
Screenshot: Courtesy of Nature Climate Change

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They used a colored rating scale that went from green to red signaling a low carbon footprint to high carbon footprint, as well as a lightbulb that showed the equivalence in energy usage. The 120 study participants who were given a label on their choice of soups bought fewer cans of beef soup than the participants who weren’t given the label at all.

“If you ask people to guess the difference between items such as beef and vegetable soup on the environment, they assume there is not much difference, but beef soup creates more than 10 times the amount of greenhouse gases than vegetable soup,” said lead author Adrian Camilleri, a consumer psychologist at the University of Technology Sydney, in a press release.

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Participants made all these purchases digitally on a computer screen. It’s a fairly small sample size and who knows if the participants’ behavior would change if they weren’t under the watchful eye of scientists, but it’s still a positive outcome. Plus, measuring a product’s carbon footprint isn’t very straightforward; different analyses would produce different results, the study notes.

Still, if an Australian family switched out hamburgers for some chicken strips or fish, their combined food-related emissions could drop by 30 percent that week, per the study. That’s definitely something.

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We already have some labels letting us know if our favorite products were produced ethically or in an environmentally friendly way, though these can be misleading and full of greenwashing. How about letting us in on the carbon footprint of our groceries next?