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Eco-labelling: too great a threat to the food industry?

Long used in Europe, eco-labels on food are becoming increasingly visible in North America. As Lefferts and Heinicke put it, such labels "convey information about the environmental impact of producing, processing, transporting, or using a food product. [They] may convey information in one or more of these areas: soil, water, and land-use practices; pest control practices; and/or energy and resource consumption".1

Eco-labels serve a number of purposes. They allow the rewarding of growers and processors for using environmentally friendly production practices. They also give consumers an opportunity to express their environmental and social values in their purchasing decisions. Finally, they help to push the food and agricultural industry towards environmental stewardship.

The most prominent examples of eco-labelling are the certification symbols found on organic foods. Another example is the new Integrated Pest Management (IPM) labels that are appearing on vegetables in Michigan and New York State. IPM labelled apples are available in the Northeastern US and in Washington State. Other programs certify coffee, tea and bananas. Some of these labelling schemes also incorporate social values, such as fair labour and trade in their certification standards.

The good programs have specific protocols developed by farmers, businesses, and other interested experts. Independent inspectors verify compliance to the protocols by inspecting farms and farm records. In areas with well-established programs, such as organic production, the certification bodies are themselves accredited as offering legitimate programs that meet industry standards.

It appears, however, that international agribusiness is organizing to prevent eco-labelling from providing consumers with more information about the ecological and social value of products. The arenas being watched by eco-labelling supporters are Codex Alimentarius, the international food standard setting body, and the International Standards Organization (ISO), the organization responsible for the ISO 14000 environmental protocols.

As a result of international trade agreements, Codex, which is affiliated with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, has become the major organization setting standards for food. These standards cover areas such as labelling, health claims and food safety. For several years, Codex has been developing international standards for the certification and labelling of organic foods. In fact, it may have been those discussions that first alerted international agribusiness to the implications of eco-labels.

These corporate interests seem to be worried that independent verification systems will reveal the weaknesses of their "conventional" products, open the competitive doors to the small and medium size businesses that often use them, and give more control to consumers. Eco-label supporters, some of whom sit in on Codex and ISO discussions, have witnessed representatives of some large corporations propose rules that would prevent third party verification of environmental claims. Their intent is to make sure that manufacturers can make a claim and issue a label without being subject to independent verification. Effectively, such proposals would allow industry to co-opt the eco-labelling movement, rendering it largely useless as a tool to introduce environmental values into the market place.

In another move that will undermine existing eco-labelling programs supported by national governments, proposed Codex rules will not allow these programs to be used as a basis for preventing import of other eco-labelled products meeting Codex standards, but not the standards of that national government. Only the minimum standard set by Codex would be acceptable for international trade. This would serve to undermine a more rigorous standard and contribute to consumer confusion, again effectively rendering eco-labels useless.

To quote Elizabeth Barham, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University who has been following these developments, "Asserting social values via the market can potentially place transnational corporations on a playing field on which they are less favourably equipped to compete, not only for reasons of their methods of production which may be unsustainable at present, but for reasons intrinsic to requirements for profitability in a global marketplace, and to some basic tenets of neo-classical economic theory."2

Transnational corporations are caught in a contradiction. Eco-labelling exposes the fallacies of their free trade arguments. International trade deals are ostensibly about getting government out of the way so that markets can really work and consumers can truly have access to the products of a global market place. If that is truly the case, then why should the transnationals and the international standard setting bodies that they have captured3 stand against businesses doing what the rules of the market say are central to being competitive - find a niche, develop a quality product, and let consumers know how it is unique.

A particular challenge to the transnational firms are those emerging labels that identify the local character of a food - one that is produced, processed and distributed within a small geographic area. The SAFE Alliance in the UK is developing a "Food Miles" green label that provides consumers with information about how far food has travelled. Many organizations are developing "locally-produced" symbols that allow consumers to identify food from their own region. For example, Ontario has at least four such labels, identifying foods from the Windsor, Peterborough, Niagara and Renfrew Valley areas. Such labels allow consumers to purchase based on their feelings about a particular place. For transnationals, this is a direct contradiction to the type of food system they are trying to develop. One where consumers have no allegiance to place, but only to price and perceived quality (as expressed through brand-name allegiance).

The fate of organic standards at forthcoming Codex meetings may reveal more about how this situation will unfold. Already at an advanced stage, in large part because of ongoing participation from the international organic industry, these organic standards seek to enshrine the independence of the verification system. If companies opposed to this are to succeed, they will have to derail the organic standard setting process soon, otherwise Codex will have an interesting contradiction on its hands - verification allowed for some claims and not for others.


1 Lefferts, L.Y. and Heinicke, M.J. 1996. Green food labels: emerging opportunities for environmental awareness and market development. Mothers and Others for a Liveable Planet, New York.

2 E. Barham. 1997:10. What's in a name?: eco-labelling in the global food system. Paper presented at the Joint Meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society, Madison, Wisconsin. June 5-8, 1997.

3 For more on how industry dominates bodies like Codex Alimentarius, see Avery et al., 1993. Cracking the Codex: an analysis of who sets world food standards. National Food Alliance, London.

Copyright 1997. Ecological Agriculture Projects.

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