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Carbon footprint and a basket of groceries.

A British University has been awarded a £180,000 grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to assess the carbon footprint of a basket of groceries to help inform new eco-labelling plans.

The move follows a recent pledge by DEFRA secretary of state to develop a single, eco-labelling system for food taking into account everything from energy inputs to fertiliser use, waste management, water pollution and other broader social factors.

The two-year project, which would assess the environmental impact of 30 key grocery products from plough to plate, would complement recent lifecycle analyses conducted for DEFRA by Manchester Business School, said David Oglethorpe, professor in supply chain management at NBS.

He added: "We′re going to do 30 case studies looking at products with a mixture of local, national and international supply chains. Green labeling is not just about food miles. We have to look at the complete lifecycle of a product from the agricultural inputs to the use of refrigerants, plant and machinery to its transport, packaging and disposal."

He added: "In future, food manufacturers will be asked by retailers what the carbon footprint of their products is. They will expect their suppliers to know, so I have already had a lot of interest from food companies wanting to participate in this project because they want to be ahead of the game when the time comes."

For any eco label on food products to be meaningful, however, it would have to be underpinned by methodology applied consistently across the sector, he stressed. “When Tesco came out and said we want to label the amount of carbon used per gram or kilogram of product, a lot of people thought how the hell are we going to measure that accurately? But the Carbon Trust has already come up with methodology showing how it can be done, so manufacturers that can get involved at an early stage in mapping out their supply chains will really benefit."

The extent to which broader issues such as the biodiversity impacts of different farming methods and the social benefits gained from sourcing Fairtrade products from overseas producers would influence any eco-labelling system were not yet clear, he said. "Once you start looking at this issue in more detail, it becomes incredibly complex. But from a purely environmental view, my view is that the jury is very much out about what sort of supply chains are really the greenest. All the reports in the media about local being best can be very misleading. Centralised food production and transportation systems are economically the most efficient, and may well be environmentally the most efficient as well."