Labels or legislation: how do you shift eating habits?

What are the policies and actions needed to change consumption patterns? Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network digests a recent report.

Tara Garnett

It is a truth universally acknowledged that human food preferences are set in stone. Demand for meat will nearly double by 2050 and – given the inalienable economic laws of supply and demand – the priority for food system researchers and policy makers alike is to grow, transport and formulate more of the foods that people want in ways that do less harm to the planet and to people’s waistlines, hearts and kidneys.

Or so conventional wisdom would dictate. Thus considerable time and money is spent on investigating how more food can be produced with less, and at less cost.

But if we are to achieve substantial reductions in food-related environmental impacts , then the ‘more with less’ agenda will only get us so far. Our consumption patterns also need to change. And importantly, changes on environmental grounds can also deliver a health dividend.

Down with this sort of thing. But how do we do it?

Moreover, it does seem somewhat unimaginative to suppose that nothing can be done to shift human consumption preferences. The history of humanity is a history of change. We may have a biological predilection for the nutrients found in certain foods – fat, sugar, protein – but preferences display huge diversity over time and across cultures. When living in India I will never forget my friend’s five-year-old son would pester her for a cardamom pod as a ‘treat’ to chew on. The Swedes enjoy surströmming – fermented fish herring. I rest my case.

Right questions, right answers

What if we devoted the same amount of research and policy time and money to shifting consumption patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions?

This ‘what if?’ question was the starting point for the report ‘Policies and actions to shift eating patterns: What works?’ undertaken by the Food Climate Research Network and Chatham House, and in association with EAT, who kindly supported the work.

We looked at two things: what kind of research is out there that investigates how consumption patterns might be shifted in healthier and/or more sustainable directions. And what does this research find?

How much do people consider their health or the environment’s health when making food choices?

We began by defining five ‘desirable’ consumption patterns, including eating more plants, fewer animal products, and less sugar. While recognising caveats with all these, an increasingly robust body of research suggests that shifts in these directions are broadly positive for health and sustainability.

Next we looked at the behaviour change literature, drawing upon previous work we’ve undertaken, and seeing what other researchers say about why people consume what they consume. We looked at changes in pricing (taxes, subsidies and so forth); changes in food system governance (trade agreements, national planning and procurement policies); as well as industry agreements, ‘settings’ based interventions (for example in schools); and finally at awareness raising approaches.

So what did we find?

We found huge swathes of studies that reported on interventions seeking to make us eat more healthily. Most of this health oriented literature focused on increasing fruit and vegetable intakes or reducing sugar. Studies that focus on shifting out eating patterns for environmental reasons were far less in evidence.

Crucially, most of the interventions that focused on altering individual consumption patterns were founded on the hypothesis that ‘if people only knew, they would do the right thing’. In fact plenty of evidence indicates that people do indeed ‘know’ what healthy eating looks like. Sadly, a glance out of the office window at the expansive waistlines of passers-by suggests that our minds and our stomachs are not entirely in union.

Diagram showing a typology of possible policy interventionsGFS
A typology of possible policy interventions.

The superabundance of awareness raising interventions also reflects not so much researchers’ ignorance but their impotence. It is within the power of an academic to design an awareness raising intervention – but changing an international food trade agreement, or getting governments to implement a 20% tax, say, on unhealthy foods… not so much. (Although the tax literature is actually growing, thanks to interventions by countries such as Mexico).

Our review also found that most of the literature focuses on rich-world settings. This is a huge omission since most of the growth in diet-related diseases and food-related environmental impacts is occurring in the developing world.

Notwithstanding the massive knowledge gaps and the fact that this was a small and very rapidly executed piece of work, we were able to make a few observations.

  • Consumption matters: Policy makers and industry need to recognise the importance of this goal and prioritise it
  • Don’t leave it to the individual: Approaches aimed at getting individuals to change voluntarily have limited impacts
  • Don’t leave it to industry goodwill or enlightened self-interest: While the food industry is taking positive steps to address some of the health and environmental problems it causes their efforts alone are not enough
  • Governments need to govern: This seems an obvious point… but pro- health and pro-environment governances is sorely lacking. There is a need for policy makers to set a strong regulatory and fiscal framework
  • Schools are a promising context for intervention: School-based interventions show promising and positive results on the health side – now there is a need to build in environmental objectives
  • Composite approaches are needed: No one approach will achieve the changes we need in the time we have. A mix of regulatory, fiscal, voluntary and other approaches is required
  • A whole supply chain approach is needed to understand the environmental and health relationship, including trade- offs: While there are many overlaps between health and environmental goals there can be trade-offs too, particularly when a whole supply chain approach is considered

More research is (inevitably) needed. While underlining the importance of action now, clearly there are areas where further research is needed, and the report suggests key questions to pursue.

Add your comment below. Follow @FCRNetwork on Twitter.

About Tara Garnett

Tara Garnett runs the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on the contribution that the food system makes to greenhouse-gas emissions and the scope for emissions reduction, looking at both technological and behaviour options within the context of policy making.

2 thoughts on “Labels or legislation: how do you shift eating habits?

  1. Dear Tara,
    You are right to argue that the various interventions that you list are in general good for both the environment (presumably including climate change) and human health – and hence the advantages of joint advocacy and action. I would suggest that in most cases the same actions can also impact favourably on social dimensions of sustainability. Thus, for instance, an upward shift in consumer food prices is likely to induce reductions in over-consumption and waste (with important health and environmental benefits), but it would also open the way for improved conditions of work (and better incentives for investment in sustainable farming) throughout the food chain where labour is often exploited. An IFPRI study (D. Headey Discussion Paper 01331) shows that in the long run the 2007-08 and 2011 food price rises reduced poverty in both rural and urban areas of developing countries.
    If countries are to become braver about moving away from their tacit acceptance that low food prices are a “good thing”, the first step must be to put in place reliable national scale social protection programmes (ideally, in most cases, involving targeted cash transfers)with grants indexed in real time to food price inflation. Middle and high income consumers are bound to howl at having to pay “full and fair” food prices, but they cannot continue to use the excuse that this will hurt the hungry if their consumption is properly protected. This is a lot cheaper and fairer than effectively subsidising food for all consumers while leaving our children to pick up the tab for the social, health and environmental damage we are now creating. But crucially, this will only happen if health, environment, agriculture,social security and fiscal management leaders sit round the same table to develop common strategies.
    Best wishes,


  2. I think the challenge lies in:

    • developing robust and well accepted metrics for pricing food that reflects fully the societal and health costs – for example there is rhetoric around the need for ‘True Cost Accounting’ but what it might look like in practice is not yet clear.

    • getting politicians to dare to take action – obviously proper social protection will be key to presenting a good case, but it’s still a difficult political sell.

    One other point I would make is that it’s not just food that’s too cheap – it’s ‘stuff’ in general, from shoes to holidays abroad. And of course the cheaper the food, the more money we have to spend on shoes and holidays, which may be good for economic growth, whatever that means, but leads to more environmental damage and in many cases exploitation of workers overseas. More expensive food would mean less money to spend on said shoes and holidays. But what would the implications be for an economic model founded on the idea that more is more, and cheaper is better? I have no answer to this but I do think that those of us working on food issues need to starting thinking more about food and and the price of food impacts upon the other areas of spending in our life; b. what ‘leakage’ (environmentally speaking) might occur when changes in food consumption trigger changes in consumption of other goods and services, and c. ultimately whether it is possible to investigate and model economic alternatives to the status quo that that are not founded on the requirement to keep consuming but that enable a good quality of life for all. I know that there is quite a lot of work going on in this area but the food systems community seems to be insufficiently linked up to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up to our Newsletter