NEWS: You are what you eat

A Dispatch by SSC Intern Lila Holzman

Sweden has long proven to be a world leader on climate change initiatives and plans to eliminate the use of fossil fuel for electricity by 2020 along with cars that run on gasoline by 2030.  Now, Sweden is attacking another less talked about yet highly impactful industry: food!

In 2005 Sweden’s national environmental agency carried out a study that determined personal consumption to generate 2 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.  The government then realized that changing diets and educating farmers on low-emission practices could have a significant impact.

Sweden’s new initiative involves labeling some foods in grocery stores or on restaurant menus with not only the usual nutritional content, but also with the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted during its production.  The Nutrition Department at the Swedish National Food Administration was tasked with designing guidelines for food that equally consider climate and health.  As one might expect, these guidelines show that beans or chicken are more climate-friendly options than red meat, but surprisingly vegetables like carrots came out winners over tomatoes or cucumbers.  Many factors are involved in the lifecycle analysis of a food item including: fertilizer type, harvesting machinery, packing, and transport.  Apparently tomatoes and cucumbers in the region must be grown inside heated, energy consuming greenhouses, thereby increasing their emissions.

Some say the labels will not affect them and would continue to choose a 1.7 kg CO2 hamburger over a 0.4 kg CO2 chicken sandwich.  Nevertheless a popular hamburger chain claims that after posting the labels, they saw a 20% sales increase of climate-friendly items.

Some food producers argue that the new programs are too complicated and could hurt profits.  The meat industry, Norwegian salmon farmers, and Malaysian palm oil growers are among those who attack the new dietary recommendations.

If the recommendations are followed precisely, food production emissions could decrease by 20-50%, and considering that 25% of people’s emissions in industrialized countries is due to food, this could certainly make a big difference.  In fact, dietary changes can be as or more effective than switching vehicles.  Sweden is the first to implement such an idea, and positive results could influence other countries into doing the same.

For more information in this initiative and Sweden’s new food guidelines, check out this New York Times article.