Social science has an active role to play in driving positive consumer choices, says Philip Lowe.

Philip Lowe

Governments, including the UK’s, have signed up to the Kyoto Protocol and brought in domestic legislation with ambitious carbon reduction targets. But before we sit back and congratulate ourselves, shouldn’t we be thinking about exactly how we are to achieve real carbon reduction?

At the moment we are not only in danger of simply exporting our responsibilities by trading our emissions with less industrialised countries, but also failing to address the overall contribution that agriculture makes to climate change – at present the industry is responsible for 38 per cent of UK methane emissions – the vast majority from livestock management.

Climate change is a truly wicked problem on which we have to act not only globally, but on all fronts, if any real progress is to be made. And that means making real changes to our consuming and purchasing behaviour at the local level too.

Otherwise we risk falling for the rhetoric and missing the real point: are the ambitious targets we have set ourselves achievable, and are they compatible with our current approach to that other wicked problem of food security? Neither of these challenges can be approached as simply a technical problem for natural science to solve and they cannot be tackled in isolation.

Think global act local

If we are to have any real prospect of matching aspirations to actions – that is growing more food but with less energy and fewer emissions – social science has to be brought into the armoury and critical choices have to be made.

Until now, agriculture has seldom been challenged as a net producer of greenhouse gases. The industry, involving so many small producers, has seemed beyond government control, but in a changing climate it will have to play a more positive role.

The importance of peat bogs as a carbon sink, for example, is now clear and it is vital that these soils are maintained in good condition. Land use will also play a part in mitigation. As flooding events become more frequent, a more flexible approach to agricultural land management and payments to farmers for upstream flood storage might provide one means of helping to protect towns and cities.

New technologies might help us to carry on without major adjustments to our lifestyles, but will consumers accept them?  We have already seen negative public reactions to issues such as GM crops where technology has moved faster than public awareness or understanding, and now intensification of production systems is provoking new debates about animal welfare.

Much more likely to be effective is socio-technological change, where lifestyles and technology change together in a complementary fashion, and this could be driven by consumers themselves.

Social science can help us to understand the decisions people make and how to influence them, and this includes decisions about food. For example, an interdisciplinary project investigating the implications of a nutrition-driven policy for the countryside as part of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, showed how taxing foods with high fat content and subsidising fruit and vegetables could improve diet in line with healthy eating guidelines.

Researchers also looked at the most effective ways of using advertising (PDF) to target the eating habits of specific social groups. If people who buy the food decide to eat more healthily, which could include less meat and move to more plant-based meals, that would itself cause the market to supply their needs, and achieve real change in the way land is managed, rather than driving production and emissions abroad.

Social science is the tool that can help us to understand how people make these kinds of small, everyday choices that have the potential to drive major change, and it could be the key to helping us achieve our ambitious targets.

About Philip Lowe

Philip Lowe is Director of the Rural Economy and Land Use (Relu) Programme of the UK Research Councils.

He has been a leading figure in the development of interdisciplinary rural studies in the UK. In 1992, he founded the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he holds the Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy.

He is a former Scientific Chair of the European Society for Rural Sociology and a former member of the Science Advisory Council of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

He has played an active role in rural policy development at the national and European levels and in the North of England. For his contribution to the rural economy he was appointed OBE in 2003.

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