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Catalyzing change in our diets

In the final meeting to draw connections between our diets, our health and wellbeing, and sustainability, the three witnesses helped us to think about ways in which policy could - and should - shape what we eat.

As always for the last meeting of term, our working title is 'catalysing change' and our first witness was Dr Brent Loken from the EAT Foundation in Oslo. EAT was created by the Stordalen Foundation, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Wellcome Trust in 2013 and aims to stimulate inter-disciplinary research in order reform the global food system, enabling us to feed a growing global population with healthy food from a healthy planet.

He joined Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London's Centre for Food Policy, and Professor Theresa Marteau, the Director of the Director of Behaviour and Health Research Unit in Cambridge.

Research gaps

Professor Tim Lang stated that despite vast resources being poured into non-communicable diseases the food system is currently unsustainable, and we need to calibrate a ‘good’ diet that factors in ecosystems and health and social considerations. Although most effort currently focuses on production issues, looking at consumption and dietary shifts is vital. He emphasised that our current food supply and dietary issues require a multi-disciplinary and multi-criteria approach. The latter should focus on six overlapping areas: food quality, health, the environment, social and cultural issues relating to diet, economics and governance. A crucial challenge is creating food cultures that live within environmental limits. Whilst culture has plasticity, there are very few policy frameworks for fashioning dietary changes at a population level.

Dr Brent Loken examined further the level at which policy should focus. The scale and pace of the problem suggests that rapid transformation of the entire food system is required. As a result his approach has shifted from seeking small-scale changes to large-scale population-level interventions, as localised thinking can neglect large economic and political forces that can massively impact small communities. Although it is easy to assume people want to adopt a good diet or protect natural resources, other factors can easily override these drives. Thus research is needed to understand the leverage points that alter food cultures. Despite a generally good evidence base regarding what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet, telling people what to do is ineffective. However, universal targets and guidelines can help policymakers and governments to make effective interventions.

Professor Theresa Marteau’s research seeks to generate evidence regarding effective or ineffective ways of changing behaviour. Food policy needs to tackle the availability and affordability of certain types of food in order to create sustainable diets. To do this, we need to embolden policymakers by increasing public support for policies that encourage behavioural change. One possibility is that there is evidence to suggest that communicating the evidence and efficacy of an intervention can make a policy acceptable to the public. Another, although challenging ethically, is to reverse the usual progression whereby changes in belief lead to behavioural change. Instead, changing behaviour, as with the smoking ban, can lead to cultural shifts. For example, changing public sector environments could signal model behaviour, and more studies are needed on how great an impact such policies could have. 

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion

Have we reached an understanding concerning exactly what is a sustainable and healthy diet? Although there is a large evidence base, there is still disagreement regarding exactly what diets would be suitable for environmental and human health, and indeed how far we should go in creating universal recommendations. Should our approach be to create a global concept of a sustainable and healthy diet or to have regionalised versions that factor in local contexts?

How can the public be empowered to make good decisions? Healthy and sustainable diets must not be separated, but may be in conflict. This can lead to government departments and media giving mixed messages, which in turn can cause public scepticism. Clear communication and improved education are key drivers that can empower the public to make good decisions.

Should food policy intervene at a population or local level or would a mixture of these be most effective? The urgency and scale of the problem seems to dictate that population-level interventions, which can have the quickest and greatest impact, are needed. However, cultural influences on food choice are very strong so local or community-level interventions and changes to food environments could catalyze behavioural change. Deciding which groups—religious, cultural, linguistic, geographical, age-related—to target and which interventions would be most effective needs further research.

What are the opportunities for policy to intervene that would lead to large-scale changes in our diets? Disruptions such as war or food scares can have a large impact on people’s food choices. Policy ‘nimbleness’, and the ability and preparedness to seize such opportunities for change, is crucial.

Can food policy meaningfully change within the current economic and political status quo? It is important to work with existing large-scale economic forces as these currently have the most leverage. However, most discussions assume that the current global system will be maintained, but is even more radical thinking required? 

To find out more about this theme or the meeting, please e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond ().

Kirsten van Fossen is a PhD student in the Centre for Industrial Sustainability and she wrote an article reflecting on the discussion this month and the questions she would like to ask.

Read her article

In an Opinion article for the Research News website, Theresa Marteau argues that when it comes to sugary drinks, people prefer a nudge than a tax.

Read the article