Sustainability - Diets & Nutrition

The environmental cost of food

By Sara Stefanovic
5 min read

How much would food cost if the price included its environmental impact? We are not talking about the money needed to buy a kilo of meat, as per the price tag, but about all those non-explicit costs that affect the community, defined as environmental cost.

The calculations come from a study by three German universities (A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks) published in Nature and are based on the German market but are also applicable in Italy. Although the agricultural sector is globally a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, a comprehensive economic analysis of environmental and social externalities has not yet been conducted. The research uses life cycle assessment and meta-analytical approaches, calculating the external climate costs of food products.

Thus, if the price of a steak included the impacts caused to biodiversity and climate, on average, a steak would cost 146% more. The same goes for dairy products: the price would increase by 91%. The ones that would increase the least are plant-based products, with only a 6% increase. Environmental costs of greenhouse gas emissions are not part of the farmers’ costs nor of the production and distribution chain. So the responsibility falls on consumers and the environment, and ultimately on future generations.

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The standard cost of a beef steak is 4.50€/hectare, but what is its environmental cost? Well, a good 11€/hectare.

The results show that the external costs of GHG are highest for conventional and organic livestock products (2.41 € / kg of the product; 146% and 71% surcharge on the producer price level), followed by conventional dairy products (0.24 € / kg of the product; 91% surcharge) and lowest for organic plant products (0.02 € / kg of the product; 6% surcharge). On the positive side, if we could incorporate the environmental cost of food production into the price of food, we would move towards plant-based diets that are more sustainable and less impactful on our Planet.

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Broccoli: standard cost 0.90€/kilo – environmental price 0.95€/kilo.

Milk: standard cost 1.10€/liter – environmental impact cost 2.50€.

environmental cost
The study showed that regardless of the differences in impact between producers, meat and dairy products remain in the lead for their impact on the environment.

Cow’s milk, for instance, far exceeds the environmental impact of any plant-based alternative. Of the alternatives, the worst choice from an environmental standpoint is almond milk; the best one is oats. Soybean is also a pretty environmentally friendly choice, despite the fact that its production is linked to many environmental problems. In fact, these arise mainly because of the huge quantities of soybean produced as livestock food.

In Italy, however, vegetable alternatives are rather expensive. Cow’s milk, which is one of the basic foods, is taxed at 4%, whereas vegetable milk is considered a luxury good and is subject to a 22% VAT. In other European countries, the tax on vegetable beverages is decidedly lower than in Italy; however, it is often higher than that imposed on cow milk.

environmental cost

The policy generally still seems reluctant to open the way for alternatives to dairy. In 2017, the EU strictly banned the use of the term milk for plant-based products. According to lawmakers, the intent was to protect consumers, as alternatives to cow’s milk do not contain the same nutrients. However, this decision also protected the interests of the dairy industry by giving it a tax and advertising advantage.

But how have the various realities around the world responded? Today, we’ll discuss two important examples: the launch of a food label that indicates the impact of food and the creation of the first store where the price of food is set according to the carbon footprint.

A label that indicates the environmental cost of foods

The environmental impact is an indicator that takes into account several factors: air, water, ocean and soil pollution. Factors considered are greenhouse gas emissions (CO2), destruction of the ozone layer, fine particle emissions, depletion of water resources and freshwater pollution, land use and loss of biodiversity. What is the purpose of this label? To raise consumer awareness towards the purchase of more environmentally friendly products. The first country to adopt it is France, and it is called Eco-score.

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The new symbol resembles in every way the famous French traffic light label (NutriScore). A scale of five letters and five colors, from the dark green A to the red E, is placed inside a stylized leaf. In this case, instead of the nutritional aspects, it is the life cycle of a product that is being evaluated, from the production system to the packaging, including the impact on biodiversity. In order to award a green, yellow or red label, the system starts from the analysis of the product’s life cycle (Life cycle assessment or LCA), based on data from Ademe’s Agribalyse program.

environmental cost

With a score from 80 to 100, the best products earn an A, and the label is green. Those scoring 60 to 80 are marked with a light green B. While those from 40 to 60 earn a yellow C. The orange color corresponds to a D (with points from 20 to 40). The worst ones with scores from 0 to 20 have an E and a red color.

Felix – The Climate Store initiative

Recently, an increasing number of brands are labeling their products to show their climate impact. Swedish food company Felix is one of them. For two days in October, Felix opened a store in Stockholm, where all items were priced based on their carbon footprint. The higher the carbon footprint, the higher the price. The idea was to show how easy it is for shoppers to make climate-friendly choices when products are clearly labeled. Each customer was given a budget in carbon dioxide equivalents to shop for a week’s worth of groceries.

environmental cost

Although the store was a brief initiative to raise awareness, Felix already lists on its website the greenhouse gas emissions associated with all of its food, from growing the ingredients to the finished product. Products are given a low climate footprint label if their emissions are no more than half the average for food in Sweden. According to a new international survey commissioned by Carbon Trust, of more than 10,000 consumers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, two-thirds of consumers support carbon labeling. They said they were more likely to think positively about a brand that could demonstrate that it had reduced the carbon footprint of its products.

5 min read

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