Bright Maize is among those sponsoring The Carbon Food Conference in London this week. Instigated by Carmarthenshire dairy farmer Sion Davies, we look at the speakers and the topics on the agenda
As net zero targets loom ever larger, more and more of us are reflecting on the environmental toll exacted by our daily lives. The way we travel; what we throw away and what we recycle; the energy we consume. Above all, perhaps, what we eat.
‘Food is the strongest lever we have as individuals for fighting climate change.’
So Sandra Noonan recently put it to Forbes Magazine.[i] Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer went on, ‘If, as a society, we start paying attention to our dietary carbon footprints, much as we pay attention to our daily caloric intake, we could alter the course of planetary history.’
And she’s right. Google ‘how to reduce your carbon footprint’ and food is the first thing you’ll read about.
But, as newly carbon-conscious consumers, we face a problem.
The relationship between the food products we opt to buy and the corresponding pattern of demands we make of the planet is all too often far from clear.
The BBC’s Adam Fleming made headlines this month when he tweeted[ii] his surprise on seeing, on the COP26 café menu, that a croissant can have a higher carbon footprint than a bacon roll.
Scrupulously sourced salads are easy. But what about the great mass of everyday staples, the kind loaded routinely into the supermarket trolley (or online basket) every week? How do we know what we’re doing?
There exists a kind of carbon literacy void – it’s been called a ‘blind spot’[iii] – between the shopper and the grocery shelf; a cultural disconnect which sees the environmental profile of anything but the most obviously pioneering products go oddly unadvertised or else clouded in confusion.
How bridge this disconnect? How bring clarity and transparency to the food industry – the kind of transparency on which the drive towards carbon neutrality necessarily depends?
That is the question central to the conference being held on 25 November at The Little Ship Club, Bell Wharf Lane, Upper Thames St, London, EC4R 3TB.
Guiding attendees through the principal issues will be a series of speakers, each of whose field of experience will, it is hoped, both illuminate the complexities of the status quo and suggest new pathways towards appropriate reform.
Dr Claire May, Associate Professor at the University of Lincoln, is a marketing expert with a special interest in consumer food purchasing behaviour and education in sustainable development.
Much research has been done in recent years into how consumers respond – or would respond, given the chance – to low-carbon food options. Analysis focuses naturally on the so-called ‘willingness to pay’ factor. One 2013 study[iv], for example, suggested that consumers would pay a premium of almost 5% for a steak that was labelled as producing 20% less carbon.
Dr May will share with the conference her understanding of and insights into this rapidly evolving field of data, and assess likely consumer responses to possible future initiatives.
The idea of carbon labelling will, inevitably, emerge as one of the day’s key themes.
It’s a practice that would seem – across all areas of the consumer experience – virtually indispensable to the carbon-conscious lifestyle, and examples of it are increasingly visible on supermarket shelves (although, as Dr May will recount, it has had something of a chequered history).
The Carbon Trust, whose latest research[v] has found that two thirds of consumers think carbon labelling is a good idea, is the UK’s leading authority on the subject.
Dr Dave Chadwick, Professor of Sustainable Land Use Systems at Bangor University will offer the conference a definitive summary of the greenhouse gas sources and mitigation challenges at the farm level. Whilst the current focus is of course on net zero, he will also highlight the additional environmental challenges facing farmers, e.g. controlling ammonia emissions and nitrate leaching. Understanding and quantifying the wider implications of mitigation strategies is important, be they co-benefits or unintended consequences. Dave is a member of Defra’s Nutrient Management Expert Group, where the identification of management strategies that address multiple pollutants is a key goal.
As it gets under way, the journey towards carbon transparency will by its nature involve the participation of all players in the food industry – from the farmer to the policy-maker, from the manufacturer to the marketer.
Sion Davies, of Coomb Farm in Carmarthenshire, will bring to the the conference the perspective of a farmer whose investment in the idea of low-carbon food in some ways mirrors and complements the aspirations of the carbon-conscious consumer.
Mr Davies – as has recently been reported in the agricultural press[vi] – is currently lobbying industry buyers to pay a suitable premium for cow’s milk with a low carbon footprint. His own dairy farm has been positioned by audit within the top 10% in the UK for low emissions.
Some of what Mr Davies has to tell the conference will inspire confidence in the emerging sustainability of British farming – such as his use of an on-site anaerobic digestion plant to convert the farm’s manure, waste silage and even old bedding into green heat and power.
But he will equally draw attention to the fact that his low carbon footprint has to date not met with the kind of price recognition that the industry affords to, for example, milk that is organic or grass-fed.
The Coomb Farm story will demonstrate that the kind of carbon consciousness now building among both consumers and producers remains conspicuously undeveloped within certain echelons of the food industry.
The conference intends to take little for granted. But it has been organised on the assumption that the food industry has a role to play in the society-wide drive towards decarbonisation; and that the improved availability and visibility of low-carbon products be part of this.
To date, the carbon-conscious consumer has had easy access to only a handful of such products; and these are typically concentrated on the plant-based sector.
The conference aims to consider practical possibilities for the industry beyond the vegan vanguard. How best inform and educate the everyday consumer? Will information and education be enough? How help low-carbon food producers get their wares to market? And what role for government?
[i] Brian Kateman, ‘Carbon Labels Coming To The Food And Beverage Industry’, Forbes Magazine, July 20, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/briankateman/2020/07/20/carbon-labels-are-finally-coming-to-the-food-and-beverage-industry/?sh=2b5d51b87c03 [ii] Adam Fleming, Twitter post, 09:23, 2 Nov, 2021, https://twitter.com/adamfleming [iii] Adrian R Camilleri et al., ‘Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels’, Nature Climate Change, December 17, 2018, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0354-z?WT.feed_name=subjects_climate-sciences [iv] Laura Plant, ‘Will consumers pay more for less CO2?’, YouGov, 18 October, 2013, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2013/10/18/will-consumers-pay-more-less-co2 [v] ‘Product carbon footprint labelling: consumer research 2020’, Carbon Trust, https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/product-carbon-footprint-labelling-consumer-research-2020 [vi] Debbie James, ‘Dairy farmer to lobby milk buyers for low carbon price premium’, Farmers Weekly, 21 July, 2021, https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/dairy-farmer-to-lobby-milk-buyers-for-low-carbon-price-premium. See also Kevin White, ‘Supermarkets accused of overlooking low-carbon dairies “on grounds of logistics”’, The Grocer, 17 June, 2021, https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/dairy/supermarkets-accused-of-overlooking-low-carbon-dairies-on-grounds-of-logistics/657182.article