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Sustainable food production must focus on outcomes, not labels

Dr Derrick Wilkinson & Daniel Pearsall

June 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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Recently published scientific studies comparing the environmental footprint of different farming systems challenge popular assumptions that premium-priced food labels such as welfare-friendly and organic represent more sustainable choices. In fact, the evidence indicates that they may be significantly worse for the planet in terms of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than labels indicating particular farm types or systems, a move towards providing outcomes-based information on a product-by-product basis would offer consumers more meaningful choices. This would mean using consistent, science-based metrics to let consumers know how different products compare in terms of their impact on a range of sustainability factors, including land and water use, carbon emissions, as well as their effects on soil health, water quality and biodiversity. It would also provide the basis to embed farm-level data at the heart of an evidence-based policy agenda focused on securing the optimum balance between each unit of food produced and its external impacts across a range of societal concerns. It’s not rocket science. Let’s hope the next Government is paying attention, argue retired UK economist Dr Derrick Wilkinson and SSA co-ordinator Daniel Pearsall.    

 

Common assumptions that certain food labels such as welfare-friendly and organic represent more sustainable choices have come under scrutiny following recent research comparing the environmental footprint of different farming systems.

 

One such study, released earlier this month by European poultry body AVEC (Association of Poultry Processors and Poultry Trade in EU Countries), showed that a switch to slower-grown chicken under the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) scheme would not only mean higher production costs, but also significantly worse environmental impacts compared to conventionally reared chicken.     

 

The research, conducted independently by RSK ADAS Ltd (ADAS), revealed that transitioning to BCC standards would lead to a 35.4% increase in water use, a 35.5% increase in feed consumption, and a 24.4% rise in greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat produced.

 

So far, only high-end UK retailers M&S and Waitrose have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment’s requirement to use slower growing birds, which the ADAS study also found increased production costs by 37.5% per kilogram of meat produced.  

 

However, when consumer attitude surveys, such as the Food Standards Agency’s Consumer Insights Tracker, consistently show that members of the public are as equally concerned about environmental sustainability as they are about animal welfare, this highlights a need to ensure shoppers paying a premium for higher welfare labels are open-eyed about the fact that this may represent a backwards step for sustainability goals.

 

Further recent research has shown that British consumers should be wary about the sustainability claims behind other premium-priced food labels, such as organic.

 

For example, a study by researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and São Paulo, published in Nature Food in April 2024, found that organic pig farming systems, which are often perceived by consumers as more climate and environmentally friendly, have on average three times the CO2 emissions per kilogram of pork, and four times the land use, compared to non-organic farming systems.

 

And a 10-year international study, led by conservation scientists at the University of Cambridge, also found that, perhaps counter-intuitively, adopting high-tech, high-yield farming systems consistently delivers the best outcomes in terms of food production, biodiversity and climate change.

 

Commenting on the research, lead author Professor Andrew Balmford said:  

 

“We found the external harms of high-yielding systems quite often turned out to be much lower than those of more extensive systems, such as organic farming. In terms of nitrogen and phosphate losses from different dairy systems, for example, the difference was a factor of two. So, if you want to reduce pollution, you should probably avoid organic milk.”

 

Importantly, the Nature Food study also concluded that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between productivity, reduced environmental impact and better welfare in pig production: some farms are managing to deliver positive outcomes across all these parameters. But the way we currently classify and label farming systems isn’t helping consumers to make informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainably or ethically produced meat.

 

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

 

Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that in seeking to improve the sustainability of agriculture and food production, we need instead to consider individual farms, identify those that are best at minimising externality costs per unit of production across a broad range of outcomes of societal concern, and understand, promote and incentivise their practices.

 

Rather than labels indicating particular farming systems, therefore, a move towards providing outcomes-based information across all products, regardless of farm type, would offer a more meaningful and evidence-based approach.

 

This would mean using consistent, science-based metrics to let consumers know how different products compare in terms of their impact on a range of sustainability factors, including land and water use, carbon emissions, as well as their effects on soil health, water quality and biodiversity.           

 

In the context of common assumptions that food labels such as welfare-friendly, organic and regenerative represent more sustainable choices, such comparisons are essential to help identify and promote the best options for mitigating the impacts of our food production systems.

 

Such an approach would not only help consumers make more informed choices, it would also provide the basis to benchmark and encourage continuous improvements in farm-level outcomes, which in turn could be rewarded and incentivised in the market-place, or by the taxpayer.  

 

This would certainly provide a more transparent and evidence-based approach to delivering ‘public money for public goods’ than the current policy of incentivising farmers to adopt particular practices or measures, without any form of continuous impact assessment.  

 

The UK’s Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP) was established to improve the availability, quality and comparability of data in the food supply chain, with a specific aim of making our food system more environmentally sustainable.

 

The FDTP would therefore seem an obvious vehicle to deliver a joined-up approach spanning farm to fork outcomes. Indeed, the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) recently published the findings of a two-year study into food eco-labelling. This recommends a harmonised approach to measuring and reporting environmental outcomes per 100g of product - focused on four key criteria: land use, climate change, water use and water quality.   

 

However, as former UK Science Minister George Freeman has previously observed:

 

“In recommending a secondary database, or ‘off the shelf’ approach to quantifying the environmental impact of different foodstuffs and ingredients, the IGD proposals may sideline a potentially critical role of environmental indicators in understanding and improving best practice in sustainable efficient production at the individual farm level.”

 

We would totally agree.

 

The recent Nature Food study’s central conclusion is that generalisations cannot be made about the externalities or outcomes associated with particular farming systems or practices, and that we need instead to generate and collect this information at the individual farm level.

 

This in turn will provide the basis to embed farm-level data and sustainability metrics at the heart of a policy agenda focused on securing the optimum balance between food production and its external impacts across a range of societal concerns.

 

It’s not rocket science. Let’s hope the next Government is paying attention.  

 

Dr Derrick Wilkinson is a retired UK economist with nearly 40 years’ international experience with the development, analysis, integration and coordination of global trade, environment and agriculture policies. A former chief economist at both the NFU and CLA, he is the author of numerous pioneering papers and research projects published, including in major peer reviewed journals.

 

Daniel Pearsall is an independent consultant specialising in communication and policy development in the farming, food chain and agri-science sectors. He runs a small livestock farm in Scotland. He co-ordinates the Science for Sustainable Agriculture initiative.  

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