Environmental score: the right recipe for promoting sustainable food?

The Law on Combating Food Waste and Circular Economy, which was voted on in 2020, provides in its Article 15 to design and implement a system of environmental labeling on food products. A project taken up under Article 2 of the Climate and Resilience Act of August 22, 2021. After NutriScore, which briefed consumers on the nutritional quality of products, the environmental score aims to guide the French in choosing food. Environmentally friendly in every way.

Following the vote on the law, a steering committee made up of the Environmental Transformation Agency and the three relevant ministries (Environmental Transformation, Agriculture and Food, Economics, Finance and Recovery) coordinated a trial, using a call for projects inviting the private sector. Actors to propose an environmental labeling methodology.

Create a unique and reliable rating system

18 projects have been launched in the past two years, in addition to other initiatives developed in parallel. This is how PlanetScore, or Ecoscore, or World Ranking came into being. All of them are interesting, but they all have their shortcomings.

An independent scientific council has been established to determine the scientific basis for environmental label initiatives and to assess their potential impact on consumers. And raise its opinion to the Steering Committee. The latter relied on it in preparing his own report, which was recently submitted to Parliament and the Senate.

The ultimate goal is to develop recommendations to build an official index that is reliable, legible and fair by 2023.

Consumers demand eco-grade

For a long time, the issue of environmental labels has been difficult to address. The lack of data, the difficulty of building robust life-cycle analysis, and the reluctance of companies made this exercise difficult. Henceforth, consumer demand, advances in measurement methodologies, and the emergence of new digital players make this indicator a must-have.

It aims to help consumers integrate the environmental dimension into their food choices in two ways. On the other hand, the result should make it possible to distinguish within the same category of foodstuffs with the best environmental performance according to the method of production, processing and distribution. On the other hand, it helps to realize between the two categories of the most virtuous food. The ultimate goal: to contribute to changing the consumer’s diet – for example by preferring legumes over meat.

One can imagine the difficulty of constructing such an indicator: what environmental issues should be incorporated? What data should be used and how? What are the methods of impact assessment? What is the result and in what form?

Three levels of accuracy for environmental score

Since environmental labels have a cost in the face of not all companies being created equal, it is clear from the work that three levels of description would be possible.

The first level, which everyone can access at low cost, will start from the public database Agribalyse. It gives values ​​for 2,800 generic products (yogurt, pasta, etc.) and 500 agricultural products representing dietary diversity. From there, the distributor will adjust some easily accessible parameters. For example, the actual recipe of its product, the packaging, the origin of the ingredients, the method of production (organic, conventional, etc.). This value must be available for less than €5 per reference and be widely disseminated.

The second level that some companies may choose to adopt will include more details. It will cover about ten criteria depending on the sector – for example diet or access to pastures for the cows that produced the milk sold. Information that is more expensive to collect but interesting from an environmental point of view.

The third level will incorporate full life cycle analysis, going into more detail. For example, the distance between the farm and dairy products or the storage method of manure can be specified. We are gaining accuracy, but the costs are increasing sharply, reaching €10,000 per reference. And only the most motivated and “who have the means” can reach this level of accuracy.

global methodology

To measure these impacts, life cycle analysis is preferred, and within the frame of reference recognized at the European level by The environmental footprint of the product (combines various effects on air, water, soil, etc.) – for which some modifications will be made. Because the current framework does not fully take into account the important elements of the food sector. As the largest biodiversity in plots of organic versus conventional farming.

This analysis is generated by following two steps. First, identify pollutant emissions and resource uses for each stage of the product life cycle. Second, group pollutant emissions and resource uses into a finite number of environmental impacts.

Besides PEF, the construction of environmental indicators must be completed on five main axes as a priority: toxicity or ecotoxicity of the product, soil carbon storage, local biodiversity, packaging, and contribution to seafood overfishing.

The importance of a good weighting of the different criteria for an environmental outcome

There are two ways to make these adjustments. Either by incorporating it as much as possible into the LCA logic. Or by making external adjustments, once the ACV is calculated, through the bonus system. Like PlanetScore and Ecoscore, each in their own way. this 2And the The option was not favored in the two reports, because the labels relate only to a part or phase of the life cycle. The application of the global bonus is therefore not strict. For example, the “organic bonus” of filling an LCA boundary should relate to only one stage of the life cycle (agricultural production) and only certain environmental aspects such as toxicity – but not greenhouse gas emissions.

It is also recommended not to double the complementary indices to the PEF to avoid double counting, and to respect the boundaries between indices and weights in the final result (eg between climate impact and biodiversity). The risk of ultimately unjustifiably affecting the grade of certain products.

Other information on non-environmental aspects, such as working conditions or animal welfare, can be added, but separated from the environmental score itself.

Result and presentation format

Finally, what should the environmental score look like? As for household appliances, the letter (A, B, C, D, E, F, etc.) will make it possible to assess the environmental quality of the product in comparison with other classes. In this cross-sectional view, plants will necessarily appear more virtuous than animal products. Organic fruit, even overpacked and that comes from the other side of the world, will be allotted logically more wholesomely than a beef steak.

In order to get a finer analysis of 5 or 6 characters, a score of 100 can complete the system. This will facilitate analysis within the same category. Thus, two chicken meat ribs can have the same letter “C”, one with a degree of 60/100 and one with a degree of 70/100. All this in order to evaluate the meat with the best environmental impact compared to the other. Then, three sub-degrees will determine the prior impact of the product on climate, biodiversity and resources.

Visually, the results of the experiment recommend a display that is “interpretive, synthetic and colourful” so that it has an impact on the consumer. Some foods, which lack data, can be excluded from the system, such as meal powder.

The official result, tomorrow on the packaging?

Thus, the official result will not correspond to one of the existing projects, but will serve to compile proposals, based on the recommendations of the Scientific Council. Before it is fully operational, the work must be carried out for about a year in order to finalize and test the calculation method.

In addition to the technical and computational aspects, this work has largely mobilized professionals and NGOs. They also made it possible to question the notion of “environmental performance” in the food sector. The discussions were rich and sometimes sensitive. Raise questions about transparency, access to data, and publicize existing environmental claims.

There is no doubt that the debate will continue, especially at the European level where French action is watched with interest.

About the author: Vincent Coulomb Expert in Environmental Assessment and Environmental Design, Food Chains, Ademe (Environmental Transformation Agency).

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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