Sweden Gets Serious About the Carbon-Food Connection

The impact of food production on climate change emissions is in the news these days. A raft of studies conclude that agricultural methods and shipping food around the world contributes the largest measure of GHG emissions.

Sweden has launched a comprehensive effort to bring the various parts of the food web together to begin untangling the complex web of emissions. The country is launching the world’s first carbon label on foods along with nutritional advice, which could cut emissions 20-50%.

Restaurant menus and grocery items are beginning to list the carbon emssions for each food item. Last year, the Swedish National Food Administration was asked to create food guidelines that give equal weight to climate and health.

"We’re the first to do it, and it’s a new way of thinking for us," Ulf Bohman, head of the Nutrition Department told the NY Times. "We’re used to thinking about safety and nutrition as one thing and environmental as another."

In addition to being careful about the amount of fish people eat because of problems with over-fishing, and a preference for vegetarian protein sources instead of meat, the guidlelines recommend some vegetables over others, because they require less energy to produce. Tomatoes and cucumbers, for example, are grown in energy intensive greenhouses. 

A large hamburger is responsible for 1.7 kilograms of carbon emissions, while a chicken sandwich produces 0.4 kilograms.

This is the first attempt to quantify the impact of farming on the environment, and it’s complicated. The emissions associated with growing foods depends on where it’s grown, the soil it’s grown in, and the inputs used in farming.

Max, the largest hamburger restaurant chain in Sweden, lists the carbon emissions next to every item on its menu. The company voluntarily hired a consultant to measure the chain’s carbon footprint – 75% was from its meat.

Lantmannen, Sweden’s largest farming group, has begun placing carbon labels on grocery store foods, including chicken, oatmeal, barley and pasta, says the NY Times.

Growing rice creates double to triple the emissions as does growing barley, for example. Rice is the grain of choice in Sweden, barley is rarely eaten.

Starting next year, farmers that use organic practices won’t be organically certified unless they also use low emission growing techniques. That means most greenhouse grown tomatoes will no longer be labeled organic unless they use biofuels for heating. 

Plowing peat soil releases large amounts of carbon, so farmers may have to switch to crops that don’t require plowing.

Dairy farmers will no longer be able to import cheap soy to feed cows. They’ll be required to source a minimum 70% of the food  locally. Cheap soy is at the root of much of Brazil’s rainforest deforestation, in addition to emissions generated from  unnecessary transport.

Sweden is committed to eliminating fossil fuels to produce electricity by 2020 and gasoline cars by 2030.

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