[By Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times | Thursday, 22 October, 2009.]
Shopping for oatmeal, Helena Bergstrom, 37, admitted that she was flummoxed by the label on the blue box reading, “Climate declared: .87 kg CO2 per kg of product.” “Right now, I don’t know what this means,” said Ms. Bergstrom, a pharmaceutical company employee.
But if a new experiment here succeeds, she and millions of other Swedes will soon find out. New labels listing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of foods, from whole wheat pasta to fast food burgers, are appearing on some grocery items and restaurant menus around the country.
People who live to eat might dismiss this as silly. But changing one’s diet can be as effective in reducing emissions of climate-changing gases as changing the car one drives or doing away with the clothes dryer, scientific experts say.
“We’re the first to do it, and it’s a new way of thinking for us,” said Ulf Bohman, head of the Nutrition Department at the Swedish National Food Administration, which was given the task last year of creating new food guidelines giving equal weight to climate and health. “We’re used to thinking about safety and nutrition as one thing and environmental as another.”
Some of the proposed new dietary guidelines, released over the summer, may seem startling to the uninitiated. They recommend that Swedes favor carrots over cucumbers and tomatoes, for example. (Unlike carrots, the latter two must be grown in heated greenhouses here, consuming energy.)
They are not counseled to eat more fish, despite the health benefits, because Europe’s stocks are depleted.
And somewhat less surprisingly, they are advised to substitute beans or chicken for red meat, in view of the heavy greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising cattle.
“For consumers, it’s hard,” Mr. Bohman acknowledged. “You are getting environmental advice that you have to coordinate with, ‘How can I eat healthier?’ ”
Many Swedish diners say it is just too much to ask. “I wish I could say that the information has made me change what I eat, but it hasn’t,” said Richard Lalander, 27, who was eating a Max hamburger (1.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions) in the shadow of a menu board revealing that a chicken sandwich (0.4 kilograms) would have been better for the planet.
Yet if the new food guidelines were religiously heeded, some experts say, Sweden could cut its emissions from food production by 20 to 50 percent. An estimated 25 percent of the emissions produced by people in industrialized nations can be traced to the food they eat, according to recent research here. (Full story here.)