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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


As described in 21st February 2017 summary, the Forum discussion revolved around factors that shape and drive what people choose to eat and featured Professor Martin White, Bee Wilson and Professor Charles Godfray as the guest witnesses. 

Professor Martin White emphasized that inexpensiveness and convenience of unhealthy foods is a root cause of many diet-related health issues. Choosing an environmentally sustainable diet has the potential to help the environment and prevent disease, but two primary challenges in attaining environmentally sustainable and healthy diets include: 1) engaging with the food industry, and 2) helping consumers at the household level. A key to addressing these challenges could relate to the public's influence on industry. Upcoming research Professor White and his colleagues will conduct relates to the public discourse around sugar in print media and on Twitter.

Bee Wilson pointed out that food preference is largely ignored in public health discourse, but can be a critical point for behavioral intervention. Currently, people are bombarded with foods that are high in fat and sugar, which can yield negative health outcomes. She explained the importances of food preference in shaping a healthier food system and the deep malleability of food preference due to the fact these preferences are learned. Bee spoke of research conducted at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that found that prenatal and postnatal exposure to certain flavors made babies more likely to enjoy those flavors at a young age. She highlighted potential avenues for behavioral intervention including changing the food environment (ie. taxing sugar), and integrating healthy and sustainable eating into the education system (ie. as in France and Finland).

Professor Charles Godfray explained that by abiding by the World Health Organization (WHO) dietary guidelines, there could be a significant reduction in health issues, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He brought up the topic of taxing foods based on environmental impact. While greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions taxation could be relatively straightforward, taxation for biodiversity and water impacts would be a much for difficult task due to the complexities of these issues. Certification schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) also present ways for consumers to identify goods that are more environmentally sustainable than conventionally produced items. However, the evidence base of the positive impacts of some certification schemes is poor. He also pointed out that the proportion of household income spent on food has drastically declined; in Europe until the 19th century, 50% of a family's income would be spent on food, whereas now, only around 11% of income in the UK and 9% in the USA is spent on food.

Reflecting on the discussion, I’ve posed the following questions:

How can policies geared towards changing dietary behavior be complimented by other approaches? The group discussed how policies alone are not always enough to influence actual behavioral change. It was mentioned that when the seat belt wearing law came into being, it was not the policy alone that led to behavioral changes, but also frequent spot-checks, and awareness campaigns that aided in the adoption of seat belt wearing. Changing dietary behavior must be done with a multi-pronged approach.

How can we develop simple messages to help consumers choose healthy and sustainable diets? Many consumers have experienced a range of conflicting dietary messages, making them reluctant to heeding new dietary advice. Simple messages must be developed. The food and beverage industry have invested significantly in developing marketing strategies to sell highly processed foods. Lessons should be learned from the marketing industry to "sell" healthy and sustainable foods.

How can we develop more nutritious and sustainable food preferences in individuals? Educating children at school about healthy and sustainable food choices, including the opportunity to try different foods that they may not be eating at home, could allow them to develop a preference for these foods. This could also have impacts at the household level if they encourage their parents to buy foods they have tried at school and enjoy. The group also discussed the role of food rituals, and how during the 1950s in the UK, many people would go home for lunch each day to have a home-cooked meal.

How can we help politicians develop policies that benefit human and environmental health? The food and beverage industry contribute substantially to the UK GDP, but researchers can have a role changing the food landscape by engaging with politicians. Additionally, recent public attitudes have been changing with regard to sugar, making it politically acceptable for politicians to enact a sugar tax on soft drinks industry. The same type of tipping point occurred with smoking laws. There must be an abundance of advocacy and campaigning work, and the timing must be right to yield policies that benefit human and environmental health.