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