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Food labelling schemes are not helping consumers make informed sustainability choices nor rewarding the most sustainable farmers

Dr Harriet Bartlett

April 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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In a study published recently in the journal Nature Food, a team of researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and São Paulo conclude that the way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helping consumers to make informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat. Instead of singling out particular farm types or practices, the research highlights a need to focus on meaningful, measurable outcomes, and reward individual farms based on these. Lead author Dr Harriet Bartlett discusses the findings.  


In a peer-reviewed study recently published in Nature Food, we conclude that farmers (and consumers) don’t have to choose between reduced environmental impact, lower antimicrobial use and better welfare in pig production: it is possible to have it all. But this is not reflected in the current food labelling schemes relied on by consumers.


Bringing together researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the University of São Paulo in Brazil, we evaluated different types of pig farming - including woodland, Organic, free range, RSPCA assured, Red tractor certified and those farms producing pork with no labelling - to assess each system’s comparative impact across four areas: land use (representing biodiversity loss), greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic use and animal welfare.


Our study, entitled Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable, reached its conclusions using data from 74 UK and 17 Brazilian breed-to-finish systems, each made up of 1-3 farms and representing the annual production of over 1.2 million pigs. To the best of our knowledge, our dataset covers by far the largest and most diverse sample of pig production systems examined in any single study.


Our findings concluded that, overall, none of the farm types performed consistently well across all four areas – a finding that may have important implications for increasingly climate conscious and ethically aware consumers.


However, perhaps unexpectedly we found that a small number of individual farms performed better than average across all four environmental and welfare measures, indicating that trade-offs between these impacts are not inevitable. However, none of the current label or assurance schemes predicted which farms these would be.


The high-performing ‘outliers’ included an indoor Red tractor certified farm, three outdoor bred, indoor finished RSPCA assured farms, and a fully outdoor woodland farm.


These findings suggest that the way we currently classify farm types and label pork may not be helping consumers make informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat. Just as importantly, we aren’t recognising, rewarding and incentivising the best-performing farmers.


The study also indicates that instead of singling out farm types, systems or practices, we need to focus on meaningful, measurable outcomes for people, the planet and the pigs – and assess the performance of individual farms based on these.


Our findings reveal that common assumptions around food labelling can be misplaced and misleading. For instance, organic farming systems, which are often perceived by consumers as more climate and environmentally friendly, have on average three times the CO2 output per kg of pork of more intensive Red tractor or RSPCA assured systems, and four times the land use. However, these same systems on average use almost 90% fewer antibiotics, and result in improved animal welfare compared with production from Red Tractor or RSPCA assured systems.


The way we assess and classify livestock farms must be improved, because global demand for meat and livestock production are growing rapidly, especially pork production, which has quadrupled in the past 50 years and already accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. Pig farming also uses more antibiotics than any other livestock sector, and accounts for 8.5% of all arable land.


In particular, our research shows that mitigating the environmental impacts of livestock farming isn’t a case of simply assuming which farm type is the best. There is substantial scope for improvement within different farming systems, and our current means of classification is not identifying the best farms for the planet and animals overall.


Instead, we need to identify farms that successfully limit their impacts across all areas of societal concern, and use this information to promote and incentivise best practice across the sector. In other words, to learn from those outlier producers who perform well across all four outcomes.


In summary, our results confirm that in seeking to improve the sustainability of agriculture and food production, it is not enough to assume relationships between externalities or even simply to look at general trends based on high-quality data. We need instead to consider individual farms, identify those that are best at limiting externality costs per unit of production across a broad range of outcomes of societal concern, and understand, promote and incentivise their practices.


We also hope that our work encourages others to undertake similar but complementary studies, covering more externalities and, critically, other important but poorly documented agricultural sectors.


In the context of common assumptions that food labels such as Organic and free range represent more sustainable choices, such analyses will be essential to help identify and promote of the most promising options for mitigating the impacts of food production systems.


Dr Harriet Bartlett is a Research Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and Department of Biology, University of Oxford. 


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