In the Pipeline: Environmental Impact Labels on Food Products

In the Pipeline: Environmental Impact Labels on Food Products

The government has launched preliminary work for implementing labelling – as decreed by law – that will inform consumers about the environmental impact of food products. With that goal in mind, the Ecological Transition Agency (ADEME) has been put in charge of leading an experiment with 20 participants.  

The French are paying more and more attention to the quality of the food products they purchase. Yet 78% of them say they wish they could find more information about those products’ environmental impact.1 The fact is that it isn’t easy to find clear and concise data that takes the entire food-product chain of production into account. Several private initiatives currently offer a diverse flurry of models. In this context of profusion, the government is aiming to build a transparent, collective framework that will increase consumer confidence.   

Thus, in application of the law of 10 February 2020 “concerning the fight against waste and promoting the circular economy (Article 15), in September 2020, the Ministries of Ecological Transition, of the Economy and Finance, and of Agriculture, published a call for applications, in conjunction with ADEME. The idea is to use the proposed projects to test different methods for calculating both environmental impact and communication formats, in order to establish a regulatory framework for labelling. The ultimate goal is to

provide information about the environmental impact of every stage of the food-production process, all the way through to distribution. It will allow consumers to make more sustainable choices, thanks to clearer, more legible and homogenous labeling.”

 According to the terms of the Law of February 10, 2020, the labelling will be voluntary, but the “Climate and Resilience” Bill that is currently being debated in Parliament might well make it mandatory. 

The trial phase will come to a close in the fall of 2021. The whole project is being run by a piloting committee, composed of representatives from the concerned ministries, ADEME and INRAE (the National Institute for Research for Agriculture, Food and the Environment) with guidance from an independent scientific advisory board.  

The 20 participants in the experimentation phase come from a wide range of sectors:  distribution, digital apps, online sales, sectorial representations, institutional catering, consultants, and even a university-student group. Almost all of the evaluation methods apply life-cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is sometimes paired with other approaches, as the law specifies, in order to take facets like biodiversity and the idea of seasonality into account. In many of the projects, a test phase with consumers has been planned in order to better understand the proposed format’s legibility and its impact on purchases.  

Fertile ground for public and private initiatives that showcase the work that has been undertaken collectively over the past 10 years 

Launched by ADEME and INRAE in 2009 in reaction to the lack of data reflecting French agricultural practices’ environmental impact, the AGRIBALYSE database constitutes the foundation of many of the experimental projects. The public database, composed in conjunction with agricultural and food-technology institutes, as well as the participation of several NGOs, is based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology. The database’s 3.0 version, published in 2020, contains LCA data for some 2,500 products, both crude and processed. Nevertheless, those results do not correspond to environmental labelling or an “eco-score” for the general public.  

  • Eco-score  

The scheme falls within the scope of the research and reflections involving environmental labelling that have been taking place for over 10 years at both the national and European levels. Several labelling initiatives aimed at the general public have appeared recently, bearing witness to the creativity deployed in the field, as well as to the real social demand for it. 

Several participants in the scheme had already launched their own studies of environmental labelling even before they had applied to join the government’s trials. Their projects include those run by the Casino mass-market retail group, which has made all of the research data gathered prior to the experiment available to ADEME; the digital platform YuKan’s proposals for implementing the European Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) approach (NB: YuKan should not be confused with Yuka); La Note Globale, a collective of businesses and consumer groups; as well as the Eco-Score consortium. Due to its members renown (they include Yuka, Marmiton and La Fourche, among others), that last initiative, which was announced in late January 2021, has enjoyed exceptional media attention.  

Following the “Nutri-Score” model, Eco-Score is a rating that goes from A to E and is based on average life-cycle assessment data that can be provided by the manufacturer. The data covers production (farming, fishing, etc.), processing, distribution and waste treatment. The score also incorporates a bonus/penalty system that takes other factors into account, including production methods (organic labels, France’s own “HVE” (high-environmental value certification), transportation, the country of origin’s environmental policies, the packaging’s circularity, and endangered species. 

Although members of the consortium have pointed out that Eco-Score was “independent from the environmental labelling measures,” they have acknowledged that it would be possible for the two approaches to converge.” Several players in the Eco-Score initiative, including Yuka and Open Food Facts, are also participating in the government’s scheme. Lastly, several participants in the scheme from the distribution and institutional catering sectors are also planning to test Eco-Score. So the method will be evaluated within the framework of the experimental scheme, just like the other projects.  

Environmental labelling arouses great debate, essentially over the issue of the LCA method’s limits in terms of taking certain environmental dimensions into account. The principle behind the method is to incorporate the full range of products’ environmental impact –it evaluates the impact of all of its components and every stage in its life cycle. Nonetheless, due to a lack of methods or data, the method still doesn’t take dimensions like biodiversity, and carbon and pesticide storage and release sufficiently into account. It is actually quite important to measure those externalities in order, for example, to differentiate organic agriculture and grass-fed livestock from other systems of production.  

Ecological and consumer groups fear that LCA data may “incentivize” intensive agriculture, by “attaching too much value to the shortest, and therefore the most industrialized, production cycles.” By the same token, Interbev, the inter-professional association for meat, has assessed that, by correlating environmental impact per kilo producedthe method incentivizes the most intensive livestock-farming systems.”  

That reasoning has been heard by parliamentarians, because the National Assembly’s first draft of Article 1 of the “Climate and Resilience” Bill demonstrates their desire to take food-sector production systems’ scientifically evaluated environmental externalities into account. 

The meat sector is also participating in the scheme. It has been studying a grading method adapted to both beef and lamb that integrates key environmental criteria such as the services rendered by livestock farming to monetizing grasslands, biodiversity, carbon storage and preserving landscapes. By the same token, the Institute of Organic Agriculture and Food, as well as several other organizations in the sector – including ATLA (dairy products); ADEPALE (prepared meals); ITERG and Terre-Innovia (fats); R&D institutes and “Invitation à la ferme,” a network of dairy farms that sell directly to consumers – have also offered to contribute to refining the criteria for their respective fields. All contributions will be in by late June 2021. 

The trials will result in an assessment being transmitted to Parliament by fall 2021. The legislative body will then decide how to follow up on the scheme, and in particular on the opportuneness of creating a regulatory framework for the methods that emerge from the experiment. 

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