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Could more labels help us live better?

Would labelling food with its associated impacts help mobilise change? Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture (via Flickr)

By Karis Pearson

The first health warning label was bought to cigarette packets in 1965, reading in small font on the side of the pack, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health”. Nowadays, cigarette boxes are plastered with pictures of cancerous lungs black with tar, a set of rotting teeth and even a child wearing an oxygen mask alongside the text “Your smoke harms your children”. It has become understood that a clear health warning should be given to cigarette consumers, due to the dangers associated with the product.

Why then, does our society not extend these same health risks to all products which harm not just us as an individual but also, continue to harm our environment.

Environmental awareness campaigns are everywhere. Last week, environmental campaigner Tony Juniper visited Cardiff University and urged the need for imminent action to help tackle the threats facing our earth. He discussed how depleting biodiversity coupled with climate change makes the need for action a desperate state of affairs. Among the many points he made, was the need for people to eat less meat to lower carbon emissions.

The carbon footprint of the livestock industry is immense and also highly damaging to wild areas, with agriculture the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife. Research published in the journal Science found that if we stopped consuming meat and dairy, our use of global farmland could be reduced by more than 75% – an area the equivalent to the size of the European Union, the US, China and Australia combined.

A 1992 EU directive requires all appliances to be labelled with an energy efficiency rating from A to G, with fridge freezers given an extra three ratings up to A+++. There is a certain irony in that when purchasing a fridge freezer, we’re given plentiful information on its impact and efficiency, but when it comes to filling it with food, the labels are severely lacking. If you buy an A+++ grade fridge but then fill it with steak, don’t kid yourself, your carbon footprint is through the roof.

Nevertheless, the labels on household appliances have proved effective in their goal to help reduce emissions, with 98% of all fridge freezers classified as A++ or A+++ as of last year. Labelling food products – particularly meat and dairy – with an environmental efficiency rating, indicating the products which are ‘good’ and those which are ‘bad’ for the planet, could help us make better environmental choices.

Eating ethically and environmentally is not as simple as just going vegan, I understand this. Plenty of vegan food products have been flown in from abroad, are packaged in plastic and contain high-impact ingredients like palm oil. Products fitting this description, vegan or not, should be subject to a sustainability classification, but it goes without saying that a plant-based food product is still the eco-friendlier choice.

For those who are not willing to give up meat and dairy just yet (or ever), creating a distinction between good and bad farming practice on food labelling could still positively impact consumer behaviour. In a recently published Guardian article, Springwatch presenter Chris Packham put forward an argument that if the graphic images on cigarettes were replicated on meat and dairy products, showing the conditions in which animals are reared, it would help ‘good’ farmers be distinguished from “factory farmed rubbish”. I couldn’t agree more.

Ethically, killing and abusing animals for food does not sit right with me, but I understand that the practice cannot and will not change overnight. However, if consumers have even an ounce of empathy, then when faced with a picture of a pig housed in a dark cramped factory farm (who will never see daylight until the day of its death) versus a pig given space to roam outdoors and a somewhat higher quality of life, they will choose the second one.

Packham’s proposition of graphic labels on our food would help omnivorous consumers make more sustainable choices and give farmers placing higher value on animal welfare some recognition. My only fear is that labelling meat products with pictures of happy farm animals would aid the justification of meat eating, which for the sake of our health, the well-being of our environment and the well-being of animals, is not something I believe should be endorsed.

From a health perspective, red and processed meat, including products like beef burgers, pose a high risk to our health and should be more strictly labelled. Given the strong scientific link between red meat and heart disease, introducing labels which educate consumers on the risks of these food products doesn’t seem like an extreme move to tackle the issue. Educating consumers on the health risk of smoking through graphic images and blunt truths is deemed necessary, so why is merely including the nutritional information on our food considered enough? Labelling products with their health risks could help mobilise people into making more conscious choices when it comes to buying a variety of products and of this the government must take note.

The environmental impact of the fast fashion industry came to the forefront of environmental conversations after Stacey Dooley’s recent investigative documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets hit out screens.

Textile dyeing, a common practice in fast fashion, is second only to agriculture as the leading cause of pollution to the Earth’s fresh water. The toxic chemicals used in the fast-fashion industry are released into rivers are shown to have very real-life health and environmental impacts on people in developing countries (where the majority of this industry is located).

The health implications of fast fashion exceed our expectations, as do the environmental. That polyester shirt you love so much is actually anything but harmless. When washed, polyester garments shed microfibres which contributes to the growing concentration of plastic in our oceans, these plastics are then consumed by numerous marine creatures and later by us, humans. Clothes should be labelled to tell consumers not only how efficiently they were produced, but also their expected longevity and their associated polluting impacts.

In Dooley’s documentary, Primark were one of many clothing retailers who refused to speak with her about the environmental impact of their cheap clothes. These big companies do not want their practices to become common knowledge to consumers. Pubic knowledge of environmental degradation is bad for business but regardless of pressures from big business, governments must intervene to make consumers aware of their exploitations, for the sake of the planet.

While it is in part our own responsibility to educate ourselves on what we are buying before we make our consumer choices, the government could help steer consumers in the right direction by introducing a labelling system on necessary products.

Big business leaders are unlikely to put the planet before profit, hence, more frequent health and environmental labelling on consumer products can only come from the government. Ultimately, our consumer habits will not change quickly enough to effectively combat the problems our earth is currently facing, unless guided by some kind of incentive.

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