Information on the sustainability of food products in the EU’s forthcoming harmonised front-of-pack labelling will heavily rely on data collected by producers, an EU official has said. Other stakeholders were quick to point out, however, that the environmental element is only one factor in the complex labelling process.
The European Commission is expected to put forward a proposal for an EU-wide food labelling scheme at the end of 2022. This framework will consider nutritional aspects useful to support public health objectives, as well as sustainable and social elements of food products.
This new labelling scheme is among the initiatives that will look to data collection and the stepwise digitisation of the food supply chain, according to the Commission.
“Our time is characterised by the digital data-driven revolution,” Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, head of unit at the Commission’s DG SANTE, told a recent event, adding that the EU executive is considering as a top priority not only data in itself but the whole innovation coming together with data.
“For example, consumers will be able to choose a product with a lower carbon footprint on the basis of a label and this label has to be based on data,” she explained.
Although an important area to explore, sustainable labelling presents some concerns for Célia Nyssens, policy officer for the NGO European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
“I am personally not sure that you can boil down sustainability to just one number, or one colour code because it’s not just about how the food is produced, but also how much we eat,” she said.
According to her, focusing only on the climate footprint per unit of product could result in missing the bigger picture, overlooking important facts that are more related to consumer behaviour but still have a major environmental impact.
“The [use of] data is a step forward, but it’s only a means to an end, not the end,” Nyssens added.
Retailers and food producers in Europe are pioneering new labels to showcase the environmental impact of the food in a simple way, such as the Eco-score, which basically follows the look of the French colour-coded Nutri-Score.
“The importance of what I would call ‘carbon labelling’ is that it actually helps consumers to navigate, but it needs to be data-led and science-based to create a level playing field,” said Peter Giørtz-Carlsen, executive vice-president of the dairy company Arla Foods.
He also agreed that there are many elements to take into consideration other than just the environmental footprint, such as the nutritional elements.
Farm to ‘fridge’: sustainability in the dairy sector
When it comes to the sustainability of the agri-food sector, data could also be used in different ways, such as helping retailers reduce food waste through better analysis of certain consumer patterns.
Data acquisition and evaluation, and especially the implementation of data-based solutions are already considered cornerstones of the research programmes of EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative.
The goal of the projects they run is to launch new innovative and sustainable solutions in the form of products, services, or platforms, explained Kerstin Burseg, programme manager innovation at EIT Food.
“Depending on the scope of the activity, our partners are creating different kinds of data,” she said, mentioning yield monitor data or soil sample data to make educated decisions for a more sustainable farm management.
In the context of the COVID-19 response, EIT Food has recently kicked off the Smart-ET project, conceived to help mitigate the rapid reduction in the consumption of dairy products that came after the closure of restaurants.
The scope of Smart-ET is to create an app with which is possible to predict variations in dairy production and market feed costs for dairy farmers, based on both historical data and data that was collected throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the dairy sector, in particular, data makes possible a targeted measurement of nitrogen reduction or the improvement of water quality, explained Arla Foods’ Giørtz-Carlsen.
“Another application of data is in how we use a protein to feed the cows, optimising the protein use to reduce emissions,” he added.
Data is also used by policymakers in shaping legislative initiatives, said the Commission’s Nikolakopoulou.
The Commission is expected to ask member states to foster digitalisation in agriculture through the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and their national strategic plans.
The rural development fund, as well as the EU’s digital programme and the Recovery plan, will support investments in digital technologies, not just infrastructure, but also advisory services.
“We are certainly looking at how we can make this data supporting or enhancing production, creation of new business models and also, more broadly, encouraging innovation in agriculture, but also along the supply chain,” stressed Jorge Pinto Antunes, a cabinet member of the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]