The phrase 'global climate crisis' is frequently linked to expensive or complex solutions, but could the answer to combatting the issue lie in something as simply as food labels?
How much attention do you pay to a menu when you head to a restaurant?
For some of us, food is little more than a passing consideration, used only for fuel. For others, it’s more of a case of living to eat - people who’ll travel to find the tastiest morsels on offer across the globe.
Regardless of where you stand on that issue, everyone’s relationship with food has undeniably shifted in recent years.
As the global climate crisis continues to - literally - heat up, consumers are more aware than ever of the impact our food choices can have on the planet’s decline.
Scientists have discovered that food systems across the world are responsible for a staggering third of all emissions of greenhouse gases.
That’s mostly down to meat production, a fact which hasn’t gone unnoticed by global leaders. The Paris Agreement’s aim for a 40% reduction in these toxic emissions has seen experts insisting the world’s population must reduce meat consumption.
But, despite these constant warnings, many consumers are instantly turned off by the very idea of embracing vegetarianism or a vegan diet, perhaps afraid of an apparent stigma - real or fake.
Interestingly, it appears that kind of avoidance, for some, is down to something as simple as food labelling.
Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been diving into the topic through food-based experiments.
PhD student Alex Berke teamed up with Kent Larson, the director of the City Science Group at the university, publishing a paper entitled “The negative impact of vegetarian and vegan labels: Results from randomised controlled experiments with US consumers”.
A simple - yet effective - study
As part of the research, Berke conducted multiple controlled experiments to investigate the resistance to plant-based options.
She wanted to test a hypothesis suggesting that language and labels play an important role in putting consumers off particular types of food.
Berke’s research question: “Do vegan and vegetarian labels typically found on menus have a negative impact on people’s likelihood to choose these more sustainable options?”
The answer? A resounding “yes”.
The experiments were conducted using unknowing members of the MIT Media Lab.
Berke conducted her studies via RSVP forms for events hosted at the Lab where catered food was served.
On each occasion, attendees were asked to choose between two menu options.
Unbeknownst to participants, there were two versions of the form.
One version - shown to one half of the test subjects - had a ‘vegan’ label on one of the meal options while the other - shown to the remaining group - didn’t.
Berke discovered that, when people saw the ‘vegan’ label, they were significantly less likely to choose that option.
Interestingly, there was a marked increase in people opting for the vegan option when it didn’t have a label.
When Berke extended the experiments to a wider US audience, she found that the trend continued.
Again, this time via an online study, US consumers were significantly less likely to choose an option when it had a ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ label and had far fewer qualms when the labels were excluded.
From this, Berke was able to conclude that vegetarian and vegan labels arguably do more harm than good in the quest to get people to eat fewer meat products.
How this research can help fight climate change
In the published study, she suggests that the practice should be phased out, in order to help guide US consumers towards reduced consumption of animals and their byproducts.
Typically, conversations around food sustainability tend to focus on expensive or complex solutions, but Berke’s research, she says, has shone light on a far more simple approach.
Scientists from across the globe are continually insisting that reducing consumption is critically important in terms of mitigating the climate crisis.
There’s a long tradition of men being dependent on eating meat to maintain their ‘masculinity’. The study made this clear, with male participants showing a significantly higher preference for options containing meat versus other participants.
For concerned vegans or vegetarians, the research makes clear the practice of removing labels from foods wouldn't have a negative impact on those groups, finding that they were not more likely to choose dishes with meat when the labels were removed.
Berke and Larson’s paper highlights extensive global research on the catastrophic possibilities for the earth if our food systems continued in the same vein as present.
Apart from behavioural scientists and nudge theory proponents perhaps, who’d have thought that something as simple as labelling could make such an impact on potentially reversing climate change?
While there are no firm plans to put the research into practice in the US or, indeed, the wider world, it’s an interesting, relatively simplistic take on the issue which continues to dog scientists and the public alike.