Leveraging behavioural food policies - for the planet, the people, and peace

Guest post by Lucia Reisch, El-Erian Professor of Behavioural Economics and Policy, Cambridge


Leveraging behavioural food policies - for the planet, the people, and peace

Guest post by Professor Lucia Reisch, El Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics and Policy, University of Cambridge Judge Business School

The IPCC report published in April 2022 has an important message for demand-side policies: behaviour matters! For the first time in an IPCC Report, scientists rightly point out that to limit greenhouse gas emissions and minimise environmental and social detriment, we need all tools of the policy toolbox, including demand-side policies. Carbon cutting must include private households’ and institutions’ use of energy, transport (air travel), housing (heating), and food (beef consumption). The models predict that scaled behavioural changes can wring out a substantial amount (40 to 70%) of demand-side emissions.

Consumer behaviour matters to save the planet (climate), the people (health), and peace (food security), as highlighted in the recent IPCC reports’ demand-side policy chapter. The El Erian Institute is conducting experimental research on the effectiveness of behavioural policies to nudge food choices accordingly and reduce dependence on grain and fertilisers.

In the past five years, together with my former lab at Copenhagen Business School, I studied one type of policy in-depth: Behavioural insights-based policies aiming to steer food consumption into more sustainable food patterns. While not everyone agrees on what exactly “sustainable food choices” are - since this differs across the globe and develops over time - there is considerable agreement that for most societies, eating less ruminant meat (and more fruit and vegetables), and avoiding food waste are key strategies. The latter is also a formal UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 12). Such diets are not only more environmentally friendly - but also healthier, which makes them an attractive default option for climate and health-conscious caterers. Hence, the EAT-Lancet Commission has suggested a primarily plant-based “planetary healthy diet” as a target that could help feed the world within planetary boundaries. Thus, it makes a lot of sense to study healthy and sustainable diets together.

The focus on consumers in Europe is appropriate since wealthy consumers emit substantially more than others. Overall consumption fields, the top 1% of emitters, are responsible for 70 times more pollution than people in the bottom 50%. For instance, we changed the presentation of products in a Danish supermarket in a field study. Using several educational (social norm messages) and architectural nudges (salience and simplification), demand for fruit and vegetables increased. In another field study in Germany, consumers used a mobile app to track and report their everyday food decisions. Even people who identify themselves as health-conscious select food based on short-term goals, such as ease, taste, and accessibility. This strengthens existing evidence that food environments have considerable leverage to shape people’s choices. Finally, in a connected lab study, we used food labels signalling a comparatively healthy choice as “primes” to activate people’s health goals. While health goal primes alone could not increase healthy food choices, they seem to prevent unhealthier habits and can work as an immunisation booster in consumer communication.

Admittedly, the effects of these studies seem small, and the scope and scale, particular of our field studies, are limited. However, we have found (in line with many others) that behavioural approaches or “nudges”, employed by trusted actors within the food system (supermarkets, canteens), can help nudge consumer choice towards a healthy planetary pattern - if well adapted to the choice context, the target group, and the type of food choice. One of our canteen experiments has shown transparency about the nudges and avoiding reactance matter. Intermediaries such as supermarkets, public canteens, and employers have enormous leverage - and in light of the triple crisis of the present, also a responsibility.

Against the backcloth of the increasing food safety issue inflicted by the war in the “breadbasket of Europe”, Ukrainians generally adopt a healthy planetary diet that wastes fewer calories by feeding grain to animals to produce large amounts of meat, decreasing the dependence of food supplies on grain and fertilisers from that region. Moreover, plant-based proteins such as beans and pulses are far more energy-efficient than livestock. This is another compelling reason to reduce meat consumption, limiting food waste for consumers and creating motivation for intermediaries to provide food environments that support such moves.

Image Credit: Elaine Casap on Unsplash

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