For some time now, various scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have warned that the consumption of red meat, in particular, is associated with climate change. Livestock, broadly speaking, emit two types of gases associated with climate change, methane and nitrous oxide.
Climate impact encouraging people to eat less meat
A new study has found that adding climate-impact labels to food is an effective strategy for reducing red meat consumption.
There is a reality and that is that food production and the climate crisis are increasingly connected. For many, the link is inevitable. Not for nothing, restaurants are adding more and more vegetarian and vegan options. In this universe, there are several who show interest in using climate labels on food.
The study researchers conducted randomized clinical trials in which they asked more than 5,000 adults in the US to imagine they were in a fast food restaurant and select an item from a menu with options including beef, chicken, fish and vegetables.
A piece of information sneaks into this universe and alarms: the food system is responsible for a third of the emissions that warm the planet, and beef is the main culprit. Yet Americans eat a huge amount, averaging nearly 60 pounds per person per year, compared to a global average of 14 pounds.
Low climate impact green labels
Participants were first offered a control menu with QR tags next to all items. Then a positively framed menu with green labels to symbolize low climate impact alongside vegetarian, chicken or fish options. And lastly, one is negatively framed with red tags to signal high climate impact next to the meat items.
Research published in the medical journal JAMA found that traffic light weather labels were effective in encouraging people to opt for more climate-friendly foods, and that red warning labels were more effective.
People who chose menus with high climate impact labels were 23% more likely to choose a more sustainable meal than those with a control menu. Those who chose menus with low climate impact green labels were 10% more likely to opt for a more sustainable option.
“Encouraging people to make even small changes in the amount of meat they eat can have really measurable impacts on the climate-related shrinking of food systems,” said Julia Wolfson, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the School of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health in Baltimore.
Chicken and fish sandwiches
Food items included chicken and fish sandwiches, chicken nuggets, beef and meat alternate burgers, salads and beef burgers. Each participant was shown a menu option with one of three different label options. The control group saw QR code labels on each of the items.
Other participants saw dishes with green labels, indicating that the food had a low climate impact, in chicken, fish or vegetarian dishes. Finally, a third group saw dishes with red labels, indicative of foods like red meat, with a high climate impact.
One study evaluated the response of a group of more than 5,000 adults in the United States to a menu with green and red labels on the climate impact of the food. The green labels pointed to food with low climate impact, such as chicken, fish or vegetarian dishes. The red labels, on food with red meat, referred to food with a high climate impact. This information made the participants choose, on average, more sustainable menus.
Item is environmentally sustainable
The green labels read: “This item is environmentally sustainable. It has low greenhouse gas emissions and a low contribution to climate change,” while the red labels read: “This item is not environmentally sustainable. It has high greenhouse gas emissions and a high contribution to climate change.”
Compared to the control group, 23.5% more participants chose a sustainable menu when items had high climate impact labels and 9.9% more participants selected a sustainable menu when meals had low impact labels climate.
These results show that climate-impact food menu labels are effective in reducing red meat selections and encouraging “more sustainable choices,” the study authors noted. Specifically, they concluded that reporting that food has negative environmental impacts is a more effective strategy than pointing out foods that are sustainable.
“We found that labelling red meat products with negatively framed, high climate impact red labels was more effective in increasing sustainable selections than labelling non-red meat products with positively framed, low climate impact green labels,” says the study.
“Raising knowledge and awareness about how our food choices affect climate change, that’s one direct action that we as individuals can take to mitigate climate change.”
For now, this type of initiative remains relatively rare, but the study results suggest that weather-related food labelling can be an effective tool in reducing demand for beef products and, in turn, the huge industry’s carbon footprint, it may soon be adopted on a larger scale.
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