New faculty research: Consumer perceptions of the climate impacts of food

In research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, Fuqua School of Business professor Rick Larrick, along with colleagues Adrian Camilleri of the University of Technology Sydney, Dalia Patino-Echeverri of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, and Shajuti Hossain of Duke’s Law School, demonstrate that consumers underestimate the carbon footprint of the food they eat.

The food system uses large amounts of energy, and generates about the same proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions as other major activities, such as transportation. But Larrick found people don’t give the same thought to food’s environmental impact.

“When we see a car on the road, or a light on in our room, we see the energy that’s being used,” Larrick said. “But we just don’t recognize it with the food we eat, because we’ve never had to articulate all the steps and costs of putting it on our tables.”

The researchers asked more than 1,000 participants in a nationally-representative sample to rate the energy used – and the greenhouse gas emitted – by the production of one serving of 19 different kinds of food, and by using one of 18 different appliances for one hour. The measurement scale was based on the energy used and gas emissions generated by a 100-watt incandescent lightbulb.

Participants underestimated the environmental impacts of appliances and food production, but they underestimated the impacts of food significantly more than those of appliances. One serving of beef emits as much greenhouse gas as running a microwave oven for two hours. But people equate the impact of one serving of beef with turning on a 25 watt CFL bulb for an hour.

“We need creative ways to get people this information,” Larrick said. “In the absence of information, people just aren’t thinking about this and aren’t aware of the impact of their choice.”

The researchers’ findings are published in the article, “Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels.”