andatory egg labelling is a good example of creating “clear, consistent demand” – driving improvements across a supply chain, according to a policy expert at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).
Speaking this month at an Oxford Real Farming Conference panel, Hannah Jordan, strategic policy advisor to the Defra Secretary of State, told the audience, “Mandatory labelling was a crucial factor for the increased sale of high welfare eggs.
“62 per cent of eggs sold today are free range as opposed to 32 per cent in 2004, and the price of free range eggs has dropped.
“They were very expensive, marked up more, but now they are averaging 15p per medium free range egg. As they have become more mainstream the price has come down.
“The UK market has grown each year, with free range contributing 25 per cent of total growth. We’ve had very limited numbers of low welfare eggs coming into the UK.”
“Labelling is a really exciting area and we certainly want to explore the potential”
Hannah Jordan was speaking on the impact mandatory labelling could have on sustainable supply chains in the UK, specifically in terms of encouraging more sustainable farming.
Describing herself as “personally passionate” about labelling, she said, “It’s a really exciting area and we certainly want to explore the potential [for driving ‘positive change’ on farms].”
The success of egg labelling was due to factors including the “simplicity of the grading system. Consumers understand the line from battery or caged to farm to free range to organic. It’s simple.
“Because it’s mandatory you have to label whether it’s a battery egg – it has to say it’s caged there’s no avoiding it.
“Thirdly, supermarkets didn’t want to be seen to be selling or promoting caged eggs any more. Nobody wanted to be seen as the one falling behind so they responded by increasing the availability, accessibility and affordability of free range eggs. It made it much easier for customers to buy them.”
“A lot of corporates are circling the “nature-based” opportunity. Without a clear matrix it will just be greenwash”
Given the lack of mandatory UK labelling around sustainability, and the confusion this leads to for consumers, Hannah Jordan said, “Chaos is my preferred term for describing it. You’ve got lots of labels and assurance schemes already operating.”
She added that the global farm metric is under way and this could be linked to labelling, changes in farm subsidies might need labelling to help connect farmers to consumers, and mandatory labelling might play a role in new trade deals.
Arable farmer and UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Martin Lines, who also joined the panel, said, “The consumer is so confused at the moment. There’s a lot of greenwashing going on and a huge amount more to come.
“A lot of big corporate markets are circling the opportunity to brand their produce around regenerative farming or being nature based. But unless we have a clear matrix around this it will just be greenwash. It will not deliver the positive change we need at pace.
“Many supermarkets currently have fake farm names. They know the consumer trusts the farmer so they create [Tesco’s] Willow Farm or whatever brand name. But that’s complete greenwash.
“Trade coming in at a different standard will kick the stool from underneath us”
“You’ve connected consumer trust to a farm branded name that delivers no positive change on the ground. The existing legislation is not being enforced hard enough.
“You’ll see many products with a Union Jack on them. I can buy sugar with a great big Union Jack on, packed in the UK, imported from other countries, produced to different standards, using pesticides that it isn’t legal to use in the UK, and having a biodiversity and a carbon impact somewhere else. But because of the Union Jack on it, people think it is good.
“We need to make sure they completely understand.
“We know our food choices are having a massive detrimental effect to biodiversity and our environment. So, we need labelling that can be standardised as a global system. I want to trade with worldwide farmers on a similar playing field on biodiversity and climate.
“Trade coming in at a different standard will just kick the stool from underneath us.
“88 per cent of consumers want brands to help them be more sustainable”
“My cost of production as a UK arable farmer will never match a globalised commodity market – but [with proper labelling] I can demonstrate why I farm the way I do to improve carbon and biodiversity and engage the consumer.
“Our global environment is in free fall. We’re going to have weather events in the UK that stop us being able to produce food some years. We’ll have devastating floods or heat. We will need to import.
“I’m looking to Defra to deliver a rapid transition, to a labelling system we can all get behind.”
Anya Doherty, CEO of Foodsteps, also on the panel, applies data metrics to produce carbon footprint labels for food companies. The company is committed to expanding the range of environmental impacts it measures on behalf of client food businesses.
She told the audience, “88 per cent of consumers in the UK and the US want brands to help them be more sustainable.
“It’s better to get out there and start right now”
“30 per cent of food company leaders want sustainability as a legacy. Food companies are getting in touch with people like us saying they know they need to [measure environmental impacts] and asking how can they make it happen. The landscape has changed dramatically in a very short space of time.”
Anya Doherty said top down directives from the government or industry “will go a long way” in response to the difficulties currently faced “because there isn’t one consistent framework”.
She added, “I do think that scalability and price per item will only improve by [measuring] more and more. So, it’s better to get out there and start right now.
“There are lots of metrics other than carbon footprint to look at. We can’t afford to pick one of these things and say it’s the most important one and overlook the others.
“We should get away from this idea of addressing agroecology and regenerative farming as if they are fixed in time and we know exactly what they mean. These are things which are evolving all the time and will continue to change.
“We need to have a framework and a system, where these things can be updated in line with improvements. It’s about having that framework and system set up so we can track things over time.”