As with so many things, our individual food choices offer a chance for us to act to effect change and, as an example, we are probably aware of some of the labels on food products – their nutritional content, or their status as organic foods – and the fact that these are beginning to re-shape consumer behaviour.
Now is it possible to do more? We are all aware of the crisis we face in terms of issues such as global climate change and sustainability, so is it possible to use food labelling to achieve a reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions or our ecological footprint?
These are very timely questions as a paper entitled “Environmental impact food labels combining carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints”, by Allison Leach and her 11 co-authors in a 2016 issue of the journal Food Policy makes clear. Directly focusing these concerns, they ask is it possible to devise a simple consumer-friendly method of labelling that clearly shows the environmental impact of what we eat?
To do this in a meaningful way involves tackling a number of important component problems, as Leach et al. show. For example, what way(s) are best to measure the environmental impact of a food (and how does that differ from sustainable or healthy diets)? Once that is decided, how can the results of that analysis be shown visually in a manner that gives the buyer the information they need, and that will get consumer attention?
To explore these issues and to illustrate a range of options form which food policy actors can then work, Leach and her team provide a demonstration of what might be possible using some sort of labelling based on environmental metrics of a number of basic foods. Thus, using data on the basic inputs of carbon, nitrogen, and water, Leach et al. calculate three different footprints (based on weight, sustainability, and daily contribution to a healthy diet) and explore ways in which four different label designs (the “stars”, the “stoplight”, an ”add-on” to the nutrition label, or a “panel of text”on footprint equivalents) maybe used to show the environmental impacts of some basic food types. Obviously, these four types vary in design and the amount of information present, and while the purpose of their paper “was not to identify the best label”, it is to show that “an environmental impact labeling strategy will be more effective if a single, integrated label is used across a broad range of food products and retailers” (Leach et al., 2016: 221).
How best to devise such a single, integrated label?
That is where you come in. We have been approached by Claudette Torbey, Concordia University’s Food Services Administrator, to see if we can be part of an initiative to develop such a label. A group of students in course at the John Molson School of Business are working on what might be the best design. Our role in this is to work on the measurement aspect.
And – once you read Leach et al. (2016) – you will see that there is a nice space in which to make some meaningful contributions.
It occurs to me that they only calculate the environmental metrics for very basic foods – wheat, rice, fruits, pulses, starchy roots, vegetables, nuts, oils, eggs, milk, cheese, fish/seafood, chicken, pork and beef. (They give these in Appendix A1 p. 222.) “In most cases”, they argue, the footprints were greatest for meat producers. Beef had the largest carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints per kg product while starchy roots had the smallest carbon footprint, oil had the smallest nitrogen footprint, and vegetables had the smallest water footprint” (p.218).
What they don’t calculate is the footprints for food items that combine these and other basic food items into a meal or a specific dish.
It would be very useful to know, for example, the metrics for a shepherd’s pie, or a quinoa and lentil salad. Interestingly, a current group of students at Yale has shown the value of this wider approach – for a vegan gumbo, for example, they calculate a CO2 emission of 22.86 kg per 25 servings or 0.914 per serving.
This is clearly something that would be useful for Concordia’s Food Services – AND (it seems to me) would be a very useful tool in re-shaping an overall repertoire of dishes that would reduce the university’s “food-print” — because we would know what menu items to suggest to achieve overall change. We already know that shifting from a meat-based, to a vegetable-based diet would be more environmentally friendly – but can we be more specific as to what dishes to avoid and which to promote.
The future diet of Concordia’s students is in your hands – who knows? May be they’ll name a dish after you!
Your report should be in the form of an essay or report and consist of the following:
1. A brief summary of one other paper that Leach et al. 2016 cite.
2. EITHER — A clearly shown calculation of at least one of the footprint measures used by Leach et al. for at least one food dish that might be served as part of a Concordia University food services menu – and a short justification for your choice of metric and food dish.
OR – a calculation based on your own thoughts about how to best show the environmental (or what else??) impact of a food dish (and pay attention to whether this can be more easily shown on the designs of food labels)
3. Using your answer(s) in Section 2 above as the “Chef’s Special”, go on to suggest the entire menu for one day that might be served by Concordia University’s Food Services. (You do NOT need to calculate this one – just your ideas)
4. Provide some thoughts on the benefits, weaknesses and limitations of this approach – Overall, is this the best way forward? Or are there other, better ways of achieving the change this project seeks? What issues have been ignored? What do you think?
Suggested minimum length: no less than 1,500 words (excluding photos, graphs, illustrations or spread sheet)
• Remember to add a bibliography (any style is OK)
• Worth: 30%
– 5% summary
– 15% calculation of your dish
– 5% overall menu suggestions
– 5% thoughts on benefits, weaknesses and limitations
– 5% deleted for no bibliography – any style is OK.
Note: as usual – well-written and thought-out work with some good ideas will earn more marks than poorly-prepared, badly written, and disorganized work. So be sure to think about the topic and present some interesting, reflective insights. Your first draft is not what I want to see; take some time on this.