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Taking a global view

In the first meeting of a series of three on diets and lifestyles, we started by looking at how our diets may change in the future and ways in which these changes could impact the environment.

On the witnesses panel, Dr Michael Obersteiner, the Program Director of the Ecosystems Services and Management (ESM) Program at IIASA - Institute for Applied Systems Analysis - in Laxenburg in Austria and Dr Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, came over to Cambridge. They joined Professor Sumatra (Shumone) Ray, the Founder and Executive Director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health in Cambridge. 

To open the meeting, they each examined different aspects of the relationship between the human diet and environmental and health impacts. After stating the nature and scale of the problem they each offered some suggestions for effecting change through technological, systems and policy approaches at the point of production and consumption.

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion:

How can we communicate research in a way that influences individual behaviour? This was the key question highlighted by all the speakers and the ensuing discussion. There are a number of communication filters between research and the individual that can alter or confuse messages about dietary practice: impenetrable policy documents; biased or flawed knowledge brokers, such as the media; the challenge of communicating dynamic evidence-based research; and industry pressures. We know enough about the human diet to ensure healthy and environmentally positive outcomes, but not how to communicate this in a way that influences behaviour. We need better regulation and public health advocacy to combat these problems.

What is the best policy approach to influence change? Taxing food to cause a price increase is one option although this is unpopular with policymakers. Any tax needs to be supplemented by a range of other factors such as advertising to communicate the purpose of the tax and subsidies for healthier and more environmentally efficient products. Subsidies alone can have unintended consequences, such as increased overall food consumption leading to negative outcomes.

Where is change needed most? Taxing the industry or the point of production can serve a different purpose than taxing the individual or point of consumption. It is potentially more efficient to tax consumption and may have a greater impact; however, it is clear that effecting change in both areas is necessary.

How do you unpick which factors ultimately have the most significant impact on human behaviour? In pre-existing cases there are often a huge range of interventions that have led to change, so trying to isolate one factor is difficult. A holistic, whole systems approach is required. What other factors affect what we eat? The science of taste and how this interrelates with behaviour could be important and it, along with other research areas, needs to be incorporated into a genuinely multidisciplinary discussion. Food is culturally important and behaviour will not be changed simply by communicating health or environmental messages.

How do we account for rebound effects? Better dietary practice leads to a reduced mortality rate which can have a negative impact on the environment; subsidising healthy foods allows consumers to buy other products which will have their own environmental impact. Studies need to be mindful of conflicting aims and the dual problem of human health and environment health needs to be considered as one.

Is change always necessary? Sometimes maintaining the status quo is just as challenging as catalyzing change. Areas where there is already a healthy diet with sustainable local agriculture need to be protected from the encroachment of more harmful global practice. 

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

A global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (US) , Oxford Martin School researchers have found.

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A new analysis, led by Michael Obersteiner, examined the interconnections between the Sustainable Development Goals, identifying policy pathways that lead to trade-offs, and others that could bring benefits on multiple fronts.

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