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Food eco-labelling – green credentials or green-mail?

Australia has seen a boom in eco-labelling: more than 50 different organisations were eco-certifying products in 2010. Queensland National Senator Boswell calls it green-mail, forcing food producers to…

Food eco-labelling should be standardised or farmers will suffer. John Keogh

Australia has seen a boom in eco-labelling: more than 50 different organisations were eco-certifying products in 2010. Queensland National Senator Boswell calls it green-mail, forcing food producers to bear the cost of certification and shoppers to pay a premium, while certification organisations pocket the profit.

Should we consider standardisation of food eco-labelling for Australia? What are the implications for agricultural producers?

Aldi announced in 2010 it would team up with Planet Ark to become the first Australian supermarket to put Carbon Trust labels on their products.

Other Australian supermarkets are adopting a wait and see approach to carbon labelling especially after Tesco in the UK dropped its plan to label all 70,000 of its products with Carbon Trust labels claiming that the program is too expensive and time consuming.

Calculating a carbon footprint

In Europe and Australia, there is a popular movement towards buying food locally to support local farmers and to eat fresh, in-season food. Campaigns focus on consumers reducing their “food miles”.

Food miles refer to the distance food is transported from the farm gate to the consumer, and the energy and carbon dioxide emitted during transportation.

But food miles are only part of the picture. The carbon footprint during on-farm production can have a larger impact.

For example, even when shipping was taken into account, New Zealand dairy products imported into the UK used half the energy of their UK counterparts. In the case of lamb it was a quarter of the energy, due to grass-fed conditions in New Zealand compared with the energy-intensive system used in the UK.

In Australia, a 2010 study by Aldi and Planet Ark found that a brand of Italian olive oil had a carbon footprint about 14% smaller for every 100 mL than that of a local brand, even though it was shipped 16,000 km from Italy. This was mainly due to the oil’s traditional Mediterranean farm production system. Of course, the Australian olive oil is probably fresher and may taste better.

If it’s to realistically meet consumers' requirement to shop more sustainably, any carbon footprint labelling should be based on a full lifecycle assessment of carbon emissions from paddock to plate.

It needs to include production, procession and everything in between, not just the food miles incurred during transportation. In life cycle assessment, all major greenhouse gases - not just carbon dioxide - should be included.

Calculating a water footprint

Agriculture accounts for about 86% of global fresh water consumption. A product’s water footprint describes the total amount of “virtual” or “embedded” fresh water used in making a product such as food.

The water footprint includes three components: green, blue and grey water footprints. The green water footprint refers to rainwater transpired and the blue water footprint to surface and groundwater evaporated following their use in irrigation.

Grey water footprint refers to water that becomes polluted during crop production. It includes the amount of water necessary to reduce pollutants discharged so that water quality meets appropriate standards.

A global study of the water footprints of nations found Australian households held the world’s worst record for water consumption. We have a water footprint of 341,000 litres a person a year compared with the global average of 57,000 litres. The report equates eating a kilogram of steak to using up to 16,000 litres of water, a kilogram of lamb to 10,600 litres and a 200 ml glass of milk to 200 litres of water.

But there are so many different ways to calculate the water footprint of a product that there is no way to compare each methodology. Scientists at CSIRO, Swiss University, and ETH Zurich are developing a new water footprint standard based on lifecycle assessment and compatible with the International Organisation for Standardisation.

Their water footprint is expressed as a unit called water equivalent (H2Oe) similar to CO2e used in carbon footprinting.

Using this method, the water footprint of lamb cuts produced in south-west Victoria was 44 litres of H2Oe per kg and the average dairy milk water footprint in the Gippsland region was 1.9 litres H2Oe a litre of fresh milk at the farm gate. These are mainly rainfed farming systems in high rainfall zone with no irrigation, so the water footprints were relatively low.

Implications for food producers

Poor eco-labelling unjustly disadvantages farmers. For example, Australian cotton and rice farmers are the most water efficient in the world but they still get the negative publicity of being water guzzlers. A water footprint labelling system for rice would need to be very well refined.

If eco-labelling is to further expand in Australia, it should be done with proper scientific methods such as lifecycle assessment. Eco-labelling should educate consumers and give farmers an incentive to improve their practices. Eco-labelling should promote energy and water efficient food production practices and must not be green-mail.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

  1. Rochelle Vincent

    Researcher and Thinker at A Life of Contradictions

    I agree that the plethora of certification systems (and labelling) doesn't make it easy for me, as a consumer, to make a good purchasing decision and I have some knowledge of what to look for in order to reduce my impact on the planet. How can the average person make a good decision?

    There is a new-ish certification coming out of the USA called Cradle to Cradle that is very comprehensive and would be an aspirational standard for the world. It is a not-for-profit, third party certification system…

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  2. Graham Gower

    ex engineer, evol biology student

    Along with labelling, there also needs to be significant improvements in packaging. There really is no excuse for any food packaging to be in a form that is not readily recyclable. But most of it goes to landfill.

    There needs to be greater education of how consumers are to bundle particular types of food packaging for recycling. For instance, if you throw a ball of cling wrap into your recycling bin, what happens to it? Does it get recycled? Does it just blow in the wind at the recycling plant? Can a consumer collect a months worth of waste cling wrap into one big bundle and expect that to be recycled?

    And the same follows for a range of other things like bottle tops, bread bags/tags, etc.

  3. Andrew Foers

    logged in via Facebook

    As long as my food is chemical free I am happy.

    1. Graham Gower

      ex engineer, evol biology student

      In reply to Andrew Foers

      That doesn't even make sense. Everything is chemicals. Food is chemicals. You need to be specific about which chemicals you mean and how much. Yes, it really matters.

    2. Bob Phelps

      Director at Gene Ethics

      In reply to Graham Gower

      Consider Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) of active synthetic chemicals allowed in food when comparing organic (synthetic chemical-free) and conventional. The allowable MRLs of registered active constituents for use conventional food production are here. The Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs) are here:

      Note that the MRLs are only for the active ingredients (that kill the insect…

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  4. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Thankyou for this article Daniel - we need to have reliable figures re footprints . But in the end there will be a trade- off between economic efficiency,yields etc as well as the footprint . It didn't take long for the attack on so-called industrial farming ( anything modern it seems ) to get into the act .

  5. Marie O'Dea

    logged in via Facebook

    Where do they get some of these calculations from? The 189 lambs we sent to an abattoir last week yielded 4 080 kg and on the calculations quoted that is 43.2M litres of water. However, is it on liveweight which would halve the amount of water. The 44 litres as per SW Victoria would be similar to us in Great Southern of WA, but what is the alternative use of the water? Pasture production is the most sustainable use of our particular land given, soil types and slope.