Developing A ‘Meat Guide’ That Shows Environmental Impacts
Consumers are increasingly seeking to reduce their impacts on the environment by purchasing food produced using sustainable and environmentally friendly methods. But, various labels exist such as “natural,” “fair trade,” and “organic.” This can make it difficult for consumers to identify which products are best for the environment. This paper, published in Journal of Cleaner Production, reports on the creation of a draft guide to better assist Swedish consumers, as well as retail stores, in making less environmentally harmful meat choices.
The research team developed the guide primarily through in-team discussions. They then distributed the guide to trade organizations, NGO’s, and researchers. The authors decided to target “interested consumers.” These are people who are interested in learning about the environmental impacts of meat production and open to making changes based on what they learn. The authors also targeted retail stores that sell meat.
The authors wanted the guide to present complex science-based information in a way that could be easily understood by consumers. They therefore used a “traffic light system” of labelling. This involved assigning green, yellow, and red lights to various impact categories so consumers could easily compare different products. The products included various types of meat items and meat alternatives. The categories of the “traffic light system” included the following:
- Carbon Footprint: this criterion concerned the life cycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions from all stages of production. A green light indicated products with a carbon footprint (CF) of less than 4 kg CO2-equivalent/kg of product. It included plant-based products, eggs, and chicken. A yellow light indicated products with a CF from 4–14 kg CO2-equivalent/kg of product. It included pork and cheese. A red light indicated products with more than l4 kg CO2-equivalent/kg of product. This included beef and lamb.
- Biodiversity: this broad criterion aimed to gauge a product’s impact on species richness when land is transformed. A green light indicated meat from production systems that help to conserve semi-natural pastures through grazing and/or that require less than 5 square meters of land per year per kg edible product. This included plant-based protein and eggs. A yellow light indicated organic production systems and/or systems that do not use imported soy as animal feed. A red light indicated all other systems.
- Pesticides: this criterion assessed the amount and type of pesticide used in various production systems. A green light indicated production from systems using very few synthetic pesticides, such as organic systems. A yellow light indicated systems using less than 1.5 kg synthetic pesticides per kg of edible product. A red light indicated all other systems, including most chicken and pork.
- Animal Welfare: this criterion centered on the Five Freedoms as well as consultations with animal welfare experts. A green light indicated systems in which animals are kept according to Swedish animal welfare legislation (which mandates the first four freedoms), have access to outdoor pasture, and are stunned before slaughter. A yellow light indicated systems either covered by Swedish regulations or in which animals graze outdoors for at least half of the year. A red light indicated all other systems.
Overall, the authors note that “the meat guide gives no clear answer on which meat is preferable across species.” This is because different types of meat product from different systems receive mixed scores on the four criteria. But, they do identify trends showing that “meat from ruminants suffers from high CF, while pork and chicken meat suffers from a high impact on biodiversity and high pesticide use.”
Finally, in addition to discussing several limitations in data collection and use, the authors suggest that the guide may actually be most useful not for consumers but for “influential professionals in the retail and restaurant sector and in public procurement.” This is because they are more likely to understand the information and able to influence purchasing decisions.
An updated guide is available for download (in Swedish only, with the addition of an antibiotic use criterion and cheese and eggs food product categories). For advocates, the guide offers a useful comparison on the various impacts of meat production systems on the environment and animals. It also shows in an accessible way that vegetable-based sources of protein, including legumes and tofu, have less harmful effects on the environment than meat products. This is because all vegetable-based products in the guide receive either green or yellow lights.