UK Health Alliance Wants Carbon-Intensive Foods to Be Labeled and Taxed

Changing the way we source and eat food will improve health and help the planet.

 dad and baby shopping for food

Carbon labels would lead shoppers to make more eco-friendly decisions.
Thomas Lai Yin Tang / Getty Images

The way we eat has to change, says a group of top health professionals. The UK Health Alliance – which comprises 10 Royal Colleges of medicine and nursing, the British Medical Association and the Lancet – has just published a report calling for a rapid overhaul in the way food is sourced, distributed, and consumed. This is crucial in order to mitigate the climate crisis. 

The report, titled "All-Consuming: Building a Healthier Food System for People and Planet," explains that more than 20% of global carbon emissions comes from agriculture and food production, and half of all methane emissions come from cattle and rice crops alone. If we want to slow deforestation, improve air and water quality, improve personal health, shrink emissions, and eat more efficiently, changing the way we eat is the most effective way to do so. The report makes several suggestions. 

"The independent UK Committee on Climate Change says we need a 20% fall in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, while the Eating Better alliance suggests that we need to be consuming 50% less meat (red and otherwise) by 2030." 

Another suggestion is to add climate labels to food. Various consumer goods, such as domestic appliances, already have climate labels, and nutrition labeling is ubiquitous. There's no reason why a similar concept ranking carbon footprints couldn't be implemented for food items. The study authors cite an Alliance-commissioned YouGov survey that found 67% of consumers support the idea of a recognizable carbon label (and 40% have already changed their eating habits due to environmental concerns).

"Such labelling would need to be easy to follow, and also should not lead to additional packaging. One promising proposal is to describe the greenhouse emissions associated with particular food items in terms of what percentage of a person’s typical daily carbon footprint they represent."

Additional suggestions include improving the nutritional education given by healthcare professionals to the general public, and doing a better job at guiding them toward a low-carbon diet. 

More regulation is needed for food procurement policies and ensuring that large companies and institutions are sourcing food from local providers in order to cut down on the emissions associated with long-distance imports. From the Guardian: "The £2 billion (US$2.6bn) spent every year on catering in schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons [should] meet minimum environmental standards."

The UK's own national food policy must be carefully reconsidered, since half of its food is imported and 26% comes from the EU. "Future trade policy should set the ambition of making fresh and minimally processed foods more available and more affordable – public and planetary health should be a core consideration of all trade negotiations."

Kristen Bash, leader of the Faculty of Public Health’s food group and one of the report's co-authors, said this isn't telling people to become vegan: "It’s just saying increase your consumption of plant protein. It’s a simple message and something that’s widely supported by health organizations around the world." Indeed, the report's suggestions are logical and commonsense, and wouldn't even require huge shifts in consumer behavior, but rather firm nudges to make better choices. 

Here's to hoping the UK government pays attention (and other governments as well), because, as Henry Dimbleby, Independent Lead of the National Food Strategy, said in a press release, "COVID-19, painful though it is, could pale into insignificance compared to the turbulence created by climate change and the collapse in biodiversity." Health professionals can play a prominent role in shaping people's dietary decisions, which in turn affect planetary health. This report can be a roadmap for turning a massive challenge into a manageable accomplishment.