Labels for everything

This is a monumentally bad idea:

A universal system of food labelling which takes into account everything from nutritional information to the product’s impact on the environment should be established to guide consumers, according to a food policy analyst.

Tim Lang, of City University, London, said a set of “omni standards” for labels could overcome public confusion over food. The labels could provide information about such things as food miles – the distance an item has covered to reach the shops – and the amount of water used in its production, as well as health information on fat content and nutritional benefits.

It would help to overcome confusing recommendations to the public, such as the health advice to eat more fish, which conflicts with environmental concerns about declining stocks because of overfishing, Professor Lang told the British Association’s science festival at Liverpool University yesterday.

“Whilst governments continue to let the market take its course, ill-informed consumer choices are contributing to massive crises in human health, food security and environmental degradation,” he said.

“Evidence from water use alone suggests that we need to think more about ‘hidden’ impacts. Each bean from Kenya has four litres of potable water embedded – this from a water-stressed country.”

Where to even begin with this? Assuming it’s possible to get accurate numbers for all these things — a huge assumption — there is no way this would help “overcome public confusion over food.” Take the Kenyan coffee example. Yes, Kenya is water stressed. But Kenya is not one big desert. The parts of Kenya where they grow coffee are lush and tropical. That’s why they grow coffee there. A customer at Tesco is in no position to decide if Kenyan rainfall is best used to grow a valuable export or collected and transferred to the more arid parts of the country. So what’s the point in telling him how much water goes into a coffee bean? If the label works, supposedly, he will choose not to buy it. I don’t see how this would be helpful to Kenya.

The same goes for food miles. It’s actually possible to grow coffee in Cornwall. Researchers at the Eden Project managed to coax enough beans for 50 cups out of their greenhouse this year. Going solely by distance traveled, it would seem that British consumers should drop their African coffee and ramp up production at home. But of course that’s ridiculous. It would be far more resource intensive to grow coffee in England than it would be to simply have it shipped from a suitable climate. This an extreme example, but the same logic applies to countless other goods. Putting food miles on a label tells consumers just a very small part of what they would need to know to make an environmentally conscious purchasing decision.

Trying to bombard consumers with all the relevant information they need to make the right choices is a futile effort. There are far too many factors to balance. That’s what prices are for. Rather than putting ever more information on food labels and hoping buyers pay attention, we should try to make the prices better reflect the costs of the inputs. Is water underpriced in Kenya? If so, we can look for ways to improve water markets there. Are greenhouse gases your concern? Fine, tax CO2 emissions. This will be much more accurate than measuring food miles. Declining fish stocks? That’s a tragedy of the commons issue. Assign property rights or enforce caps on harvesting.

Putting all this information on labels might make people feel morally upright, but even if they pay attention to it they likely won’t make the decisions that are truly good for the environment. Markets and pricing get the job done without people even having to think about it. And perhaps that’s the problem: sometimes thinking about doing good is more pleasing than actually doing it.

[Via Coldmud.]

Comments

  1. Doug Winship says:

    You forgot one thing Jacob: Think of the millions of trees that will have to be felled, just to produce the additional label space for all this information!
    And then there is another problem. Right now we have all these groups that exist to raise public awareness of these issues. Why, with labels like the ones proposed, we wouldn’t need all these educational mavens! The public would be fully informed in one 3″ by 4″ (or maybe 27″) box on their bags of coffee! The awareness raisers would be thrown out on the street, and I think we can all envision the kind of mischief that would be caused by tens of thousands of unemployed community activists, roaming the streets.

  2. Matt says:

    I’m not going to support this idea, but I am going to raise issue with one sentence you’ve included:

    “Markets and pricing get the job done without people even having to think about it.”

    That presumes that they’re working. And it sure doesn’t seem to me that they are. Hence these efforts, the groups advocating for their specific cause, and all the environmental turmoil we’ve got. I doubt this kind of labeling will be effective, but that doesn’t give us reason to think markets are.

  3. Jacob Grier says:

    Matt, I didn’t say they were. That’s why I just suggested a few ways (taxing externalities, assigning property rights) to make them more accurate. No one’s suggesting that allowing people to pollute in or harvest from an unowned/unregulated commons is a good thing.

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