A study finds that climate impact labels on foods such as red meat are an effective way to get people to stop making choices that negatively affect the planet.
Policymakers were debating how to get people to make less carbon-heavy food choices. In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report urged world leaders, especially those in developed countries, to support the transition to sustainable, healthy, low-emission food systems.
In the UK, government food czar Henry Dimbleby recently said it was politically impossible for the government to ask people to stop eating so much meat. About 85% of farmland in England is used as pasture for animals such as cows or to grow food which is then fed to livestock. Dimbleby believes a 30% reduction in meat over 10 years is required to use land sustainably in England, while Greenpeace advocates for a 70% reduction.
The clinical trial, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, found that consumers respond well to climate labels on their foods.
Participants in the study, which used a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States, were shown a fast food menu and asked to choose one item they would like to order for dinner. Participants were randomly selected to display menus with one of three labels: a QR code sticker on all items (control group); green label with low climate impact on chicken, fish, or plant-based items (positive framing); Or the red label with high climate impact on red meat items (negative framing).
The list of conditions with low climate impact stated: “This item is environmentally sustainable. It has low greenhouse gas emissions and a low contribution to climate change.” The list of conditions with high climate impact said: “This item is not environmentally sustainable. It has high greenhouse gas emissions and a high contribution to climate change.”
Compared to control group participants, 23.5% more participants chose a sustainable menu item when the menus displayed high climate impact labels, and 9.9% more participants chose a sustainable menu item when the menus displayed low climate impact labels. Across experimental conditions, participants who chose a sustainable item rated their ranking as healthier than those who chose a non-sustainable item, as measured by the average perceived health score.
Some may not agree with this classification; Intensively produced chicken has been found to be harmful to the environment, as has some farmed and trawled fish.
The study authors, from Johns Hopkins and Harvard Universities, said: “Animal food production, primarily driven by beef production, is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is an important modifiable contributor to climate change.
“In the United States, meat consumption, and red meat consumption in particular, consistently exceeds recommended levels based on national dietary guidelines. Shifting current dietary patterns to more sustainable diets with less red meat consumed can reduce greenhouse gas emissions Diet-related caloric intake by up to 55%.
They found that telling people that a type of food had negative environmental impacts was more effective than telling them that the food was a more sustainable choice.
“We found that placing negatively framed red labels with high climate impact on red meat items was more effective in increasing sustainable choices than placing green labels with low climate impact on non-red meat items,” the authors said.