Food Footprints: Subjective Consumer Perception vs. Profound LCA Data

Food Footprints: Subjective Consumer Perception vs. Profound LCA Data

Today is World Vegan Day. Vegans are people ethically very consequent. Even more consequent than vegetarians. Vegans don’t eat products that derive from living beings – no cheese, no milk, no honey. Personally, i have a lot of respect for vegans, since they act by conviction. A vegan stands by what he or she believes in, since the vast majority of animal related food production fail to comply with ethically responsible conditions. Large scale factory farming and animal transport over large distances are not in keeping with the promise of the picturesque rustic agriculture of our grand mother’s generation. Following the official image given by supermarket publicity and food packages, small scale agriculture and happy farmer’s families produce our food, along with happy animals. Nothing could be further from reality.

Image of Food – Far From Reality

On the other hand, consumers, especially those who concern themselves ethically responsible, eco-friendly or environmentally aware, have a clear picture in mind when choosing the “right” product. Bearing in mind the environmental and ethical impact of the stuff we buy, is essential for a sustainable future. Granted. This subjective picture, however, often substantially differs from the detailed life cycle assessments (LCAs) scientists and consultants calculate. As a consequence, we can summarize that both the “official” image of food, transported by the food industry, and the consumer’s subjective image of food, fail to reflect the real state of affairs.

Organic Tomatoes or Canned Beans?

Because it is vegan day, the focus of today’s article lies on vegetables. This is the matter scientists from ETH Zürich investigated. How Do Consumers Assess the Environmental Friendliness of Vegetables? The Swiss researchers assayed the difference between consumer’s perception of environmental friendliness on the one hand and professional LCAs on the other. The study reveals:

In contrast to the LCA, consumers consider transportation distance rather than transportation mode and perceive organic production as very relevant for the environmental friendliness. Furthermore, consumers assess the environmental impact of packaging and conservation as more important than the LCA results show.

So instead of looking at how far the products have been transported, we should consider how they have been transported and correlate this information with the total distance. But is this really our personal responsibility as a consumer? Will it take us ages to go shopping because we calculate the complex environmental impact for every single product on our smart phone? Will we need to limit our consumption to the little amount of products that have a professional LCA already?

No. Instead, the authors of the study call for a standardized environmental product declaration:

Findings also suggest the current product information for vegetables is insufficient for judging their environmental friendliness. Implications for information campaigns and ecological food labeling are discussed.

A document from the European Comission (PDF), talking about the above mentioned study, proposes information campaigns as a mean to bridge the gap from the current situation to the moment, when legislation on product labelling will be reality:

There are environmental benefits to consuming seasonal and domestic vegetables and avoiding air transportation, heated greenhouse production and refrigeration, which could be highlighted in information campaigns.

Furthermore, the comission declares why voluntary environmental product declarations also make sense:

In addition, educational information with criteria, such as the environmental harm from air transportation and greenhouse production methods, could also help consumers avoid such products. These measures should also be implemented for organic products, which consumers already tend to view as eco-friendly.

Inspiration for Good Eating

If you feel overcharged with morality, and going vegan is out of question, you can still do your bit. Voilà some inspiration:

  • Ask your supermarket staff when carbon footprints or Life Cycle Analysis data of their products will be available. Keep asking from time to time.
  • Eat in a vegan restaurant
  • Don’t buy cheap meat. Research organic butchers in your area – you won’t spend more, if you buy meat less often
  • Eating less meat is easy, with delicious recipes and cooking ideas from weekday vegetarian blog
  • Comment this article with your favorite idea!

Further information:

PDF brochures on Vegan Day by Vegan Society

Article image CC 2.0 BY ND by foodswings.



Add comment

You may also like