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Food behaviour: How can we help people eat more sustainably?

Article-Food behaviour: How can we help people eat more sustainably?

Climate change and biodiversity loss are now well understood as huge international challenges. The substantial environmental benefits that more sustainable diets and eating habits, in particular reducing consumption of red meat and dairy products, can deliver, are becoming a much more important area of public awareness and policy focus.

Just last week, the Committee on Climate Change, the UK’s statutory body that gives independent advice to government on climate change, published its first ever comprehensive advice on UK agricultural policies. The report, Land use: Polices for a Net Zero UK, set out a number of ways to reduce carbon emissions in the UK in the sector, including by reducing “consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods”, specifically by cutting “the consumption of beef, lamb and dairy by at least 20% per person, well within current healthy eating guidelines.”

In addition the UK’s recent Agriculture and Environment Bills provide new opportunities and catalysts to put the UK at the forefront of sustainable food production and consumption and lead international innovation in this crucial area.

Our Menu for Change, a report that takes a comprehensive look at how diets and food can be made more sustainable on a global basis, has a series of specific and actionable steps, grounded in behavioural science, that governments, the food and other relevant industries plus civil society can take right now to transform food policy and encourage the adoption of more sustainable diets.

The recommendations are:

1. Governments should:

  • Develop supermarket environmental performance ratings to nudge consumers towards sustainable retailers, leveraging the competition between retailers to drive higher environmental standards across the sector.
  • Lead by example by removing or reducing unsustainable foods from public canteens in hospitals, schools and government offices, etc. and using these locations to innovate sustainable nudges.
  • Build a mandate by raising awareness about the environmental issues of food, and develop practical cooking skills for plant-based dishes through school and technical college curriculums.
  • Incentivise product innovation and reformulation, for example by exploring the impact of a supplier-facing carbon tax on foods with the highest environmental footprint.

2. Industry should:

  • Make plant-based food more available and more prominent in supermarkets, on menus and in canteens.
  • Make plant-based food the default choice, for example at catered events or on flights.
  • Market plant-based food as delicious, normal, and satisfying, avoiding terms like ‘meat free’ which only exacerbate perceptions that plant-based food is lacking.
  • Use novel in-store promotions such as meal deals and retailers’ existing loyalty card schemes to create behaviourally-informed games and social platforms that support healthy and sustainable eating.
  • Re-brand plant-based food towards a mainstream identity, including a ‘masculinity makeover’ to address any perceptions of femininity and weakness.
  • Test placing plant-based options, such as veggie burgers and soy milk, side-by-side with their meat counterparts, rather than separating them on menus, in supermarket aisles and in canteens.
  • Prompt easy substitutions to more sustainable products during check-out on online grocery stores.

3. Civil society should:

  • Target campaigns at key timely moments when habits are disrupted or not yet set, such as when starting university, moving home, or buying a new kitchen or cookware.
  • Campaign with pride, positivity, and pragmatism rather than guilt and idealism.
  • Leverage social influence by widely publicising the shifting trend towards plant-based food.
  • Reduce the complexity of sustainable eating by promoting clear rules of thumb, such as “red meat’s a treat”

A Menu for Change, published by the Behavioural Insights Team, presents analysis on the issue of how to improve the sustainability of diets. It looks into the historical precedents for widespread diet shifts and the latest emerging trends as well as examining likely political sensitivities and how to build public trust and consent.

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