Foodservice Footprint Foodsteps-2 Seeing beyond carbon tunnel vision  Footsteps Data Insight  news-email most-read email-news

Seeing beyond carbon tunnel vision 

In the first of a new six-part series getting under the skin of environmental data, Nick Hughes explores why businesses are beginning to take a more holistic approach to measuring and communicating their impact.

Carbon has long been the go-to metric for measuring and communicating the environmental impact of food.

It was back in 2007 when the UK’s leading supermarket, Tesco, first trialled carbon labels on some of its products. That particular pilot was relatively short-lived, however 17 years on carbon footprinting and labelling is firmly established as a key plank of corporate sustainability reporting and communication.

Other environmental indicators have struggled to generate the same level of corporate interest, however more recently there have been signs that businesses are starting to take a more holistic view of their environmental impact across a range of indicators including biodiversity, soil health and water use, and in some cases communicate that impact to consumers.

Compass Group UK & Ireland, the leading contract caterer, has trialled putting an eco-label on dishes served in its Eurest business based on an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, water pollution and biodiversity loss carried out by researchers at the University of Oxford. Meanwhile, the likes of IGD and Foundation Earth have been working with businesses to pilot labels that combine a range of environmental indicators into a single eco-score.

So why are businesses starting to look beyond carbon when comparing a product or recipe’s environmental impact, and what’s prevented them from doing so until now?

Carbon focus

On the latter point, the historical focus on carbon has a number of explanations. “When consumers think about the environment, they tend to think about climate change,” suggests Joe Duncan-Duggal, chief scientific officer for Foodsteps. “I think that’s why there’s been a lot of energy going into tackling climate change and measuring greenhouse gas emissions in particular.”

Data on the carbon emissions associated with particular foods is also better developed and more accessible compared with data on metrics such as biodiversity, driven in part by government requirements for mandatory reporting of emissions data alongside growing corporate alignment with voluntary initiatives like science-based targets. 

Action on climate has been subject to long standing environmental pressure from across civil society and academia, which has influenced the UK Government in adopting a target to deliver net-zero by 2050. That has filtered down into the approach businesses are taking in making ambitious commitments to achieve net-zero, and associated emission reductions, by a certain date in both the near- and long-term.

Risk of ‘tunnel vision’

Although carbon has generally been prioritised, awareness of other environmental impacts has been steadily growing. “I think more recently there’s been some quite successful communication around there being a biodiversity crisis or a nature crisis, as well as a climate change crisis, and the importance of tackling those things together,” says Duncan-Duggal. “Talking about these things a bit more holistically has led to businesses and consumers starting to think more about the multiple impacts the food system has.”

Prioritising carbon in the first instance may be understandable but doing so at the exclusion of other environmental issues – so-called ‘carbon tunnel vision’ – has its risks. Let us not forget for example that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with pesticide use and removal of habitat for industrial farms a particular problem, according to NGOs like Greenpeace.

Although Duncan-Duggal notes that carbon tends to broadly correlate with other environmental impact indicators “that’s not always the case and so it is really important to look at these indicators separately. If you’re focusing on carbon and not measuring other indicators you might not realise that all of those decisions you’ve made to reduce carbon have increased, for example, the pollution impact or water use”.

Chicken is a good example. Poultry meat tends to perform well in carbon footprint assessments versus ruminant meats like beef and lamb (it fares worse than plant proteins though can be on a par with processed protein alternatives), yet intensive poultry production has been associated with a range of environmental problems such as water pollution and deforestation linked to feed (soy) production.

Further evidence of the potential for trade-offs between carbon and other indicators came in a recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) which explored the different definitions and attributes of ‘better’ meat. Researchers compared the environmental performance of conventional and alternative animal production systems using nearly 300 environmental data points from 45 studies and found that shifting to the kinds of production systems commonly associated with better meat, such as organic, pasture-raised and free-range, often results in higher environmental impacts per kilogram of protein.

The findings came with a significant caveat; limitations in the quality of available data meant that WRI did not include metrics such as on-farm biodiversity and soil health in its analysis, which proponents claim are key advantages of more holistic, extensive systems.

“There are some things that do get unpicked when you just focus on carbon,” says William Leabeater, head of marketing for Soil Association Exchange. “If you’ve got livestock that are housed all of the time there are animal welfare considerations to think about plus you’re not getting the benefits livestock can bring in terms of soil health and biodiversity for a farmer.”

Farm data

The challenge involved in generating accurate data on indicators such as soil health and biodiversity is one that Leabeater and his colleagues are trying to crack. The Soil Association is part of a drive to establish a more holistic, consistent set of sustainability metrics through its Exchange programme, which was established in 2022 in part to enable businesses to report farm-level data on environmental and social impact, while making farms more resilient and profitable.

The science protocol, which underpins the programme, recently underwent a six-month review with the result being the number of metrics has almost doubled across six core themes of soil, water, biodiversity, carbon, animal welfare and social impact. The new protocol includes a food production measurement and biodiversity is measured where farming practices support wildlife – not just in areas set aside for nature.

These metrics are now being used to create benchmarks among Exchange farmers, who currently number around 1,000, allowing them to assess how they are performing in areas where there is no industry or government-led baseline such as soil health and carbon sequestration.

Part of the aim of programmes such as Soil Association Exchange, along with projects like the Global Farm Metric (with which the Soil Association collaborates closely), is to plug existing knowledge gaps with high quality data, based on harmonised methodologies, which in turn provide businesses with the confidence to report and communicate the environmental impact of food beyond carbon. “That’s where we’re trying to get to,” says Leabeater. 

Risk and reward

Clare Clark, head of sustainability for foodservice operator CH&CO, whose brands include Vacherin and Gather & Gather, says the business would “100%” like more information on the impact of the food it sources across a wider range of environmental indicators. “From a risk perspective, we are working to map our entire supply chain to a farm level to understand, for instance, is this product being drawn from a water risk area? Or from an area at risk from deforestation?” she explains. “Being able to map that is hugely significant, especially when it’s specific to your supply chain because then you can start looking at how you can support those farmers and growers to make the changes they need to have a resilient business.”

Better visibility of the data can also unlock opportunities to drive behaviour change. When Compass started working with researchers in the Livestock, Environment and People labelling (LEAP) group at the University of Oxford on its Eurest eco-label pilot, “we wanted to get an overall picture of the environmental impact of our recipes and then to understand how our customers would respond in terms of their purchasing”, explains Rees Bramwell, sustainability director of Compass One and previously sustainability lead for Eurest.

In the event, the labels themselves had only a marginal effect on consumer behaviour. More significant, was how the data shed light on which recipes had the greatest environmental impact and should therefore be targeted for action. “What we learned was that focusing internally on our menu development and reformulation of recipes is going to create the bigger impact and is how we are going to drive change,” says Bramwell.

Similarly, Clark says CH&CO is most focused on ensuring culinary teams understand what ingredients they should be putting on menus to optimise sustainability. “Customers should be able to pick anything from any of our menus and know that it’s coming from a place that’s highly water secure [and] where they use organic or regenerative farming practices. The onus shouldn’t be on our customers to make that decision.”

Duncan-Duggal believes it’s important to treat businesses and consumers separately when considering the value in environmental data. “Businesses really should be pushing right now to expand beyond just carbon and start to measure and account for other impact categories as well,” he says. “I think that the consumer conversation is perhaps a little bit more nuanced: if you’re putting something on pack, you need to be really sure that putting another thing on pack alongside it isn’t going to dilute the message and make people disengage.”

Consumer comms

Those working to improve the rigour of farm-level data are not against consumer-facing communication per se but they do warn of the risks of going too far, too fast. “The more information we can give consumers the better for making informed decisions,” says Leabeater. “I think the danger is we rush to do it and tell them a half story.”

Although Compass’s primary focus is on chef-led reformulation, there remains an appetite to communicate with the end consumer. Compass is currently in the process of rolling out a new environmental impact label using Foodsteps data that covers both carbon and land use with a view to adding more metrics, such as water use, as data becomes available.

Elsewhere, industry-led eco-label schemes are seeking to combine a range of metrics in easy-to-use eco-scores. Backed by a number of big retailers and manufacturers, IGD has been working since 2021 to develop a consistent approach to environmental labelling for the UK. In December last year, it presented plans for an eco-label combining red, amber and green lights with an A-E rating system. The overall framework for the system is based on the concept of planetary boundaries which measures the impact the earth can tolerate for a given environmental indicator. Products will receive an overall score based on a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach covering climate change, water use, water quality and land use impact categories.

A competing scheme by Foundation Earth, to which Foodsteps has contributed LCA data, assesses 16 impact indicators for each product including land use, water use and freshwater eutrophication based on the EU’s favoured product environmental footprint (PEF) methodology.

Data covering a wide range of environmental indicators is not going to be perfect straightaway, but with most eco-label scheme holders committed to taking an iterative approach that incorporates more primary data over time – and work progressing at a farm level to capture and share that data – the quality of environmental impact data will only improve.

“It’s about starting the journey of generating that data; that gets us on the first rung and then we can all start to progress as an industry,” concludes Leabeater.

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