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The food sustainability challenge

by Dr Tara Garnett, Founder of the Food Climate Research Network

This paper focuses on two critical and emerging issues in the discourse on food
sustainability. First: can we define the principles of a sustainable healthy diet? And second:
how can we persuade, enable or otherwise incentivse people to eat in this sustainable way?

It is structured as follows. Part 1 introduces the food sustainability challenge, highlights the
limitations of production-side approaches and emphasises the need to address
consumption practices too. Part two considers the two priority questions in turn, and in each
case identifies key research questions that need to be addressed. Part three discusses who
the main actors are in the food sustainability field while Part four identifies priorities for
action. Part five suggests ways in which social entrepreneurs might engage in issues of
sustainable diets and behaviour change.

1. Introduction
The food system is broken1 says Oxfam. Others say the same thing, in different ways.
Government scientific advisors warn of a perfect storm of global events influenced by, and
with potentially catastrophic consequences for, the food system.2 Organisations are launched
to tackle the challenges posed by the food-water-energy nexus.3 Some take a more
political stance, and demand food justice4 and food sovereignty.5

The food problem makes the headlines, and generates soundbites on daily basis and for
good reason. Food is a convergence issue. It is both cause and consequence of some of the
most pressing challenges we face today. Take, for a start, the primary purpose of the food
system: to feed us. While crudely speaking, enough food is produced to feed our global
population of 7 billion, we are not well fed. Around 1.4 billion people are sick from the
consequences of excess - obesity and chronic diseases while 850 million people suffer the
hunger of insufficiency. And there is also the hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiencies,

1
http://www.oxfam.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/grow?cid=rdt_grow
2
Beddington J (2009). Food, energy, water and the climate: A perfect storm of global events? Government Office
for Science.
3
http://www.water-energy-food.org/
4
http://www.justfood.org/food-justice
5
http://www.wdm.org.uk/food-sovereignty

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such as vitamin A induced night blindness and anaemia, which in total affect about two
billion people - including, ironically people who might also be obese.6 7 8

At the same time, the production, distribution and delivery of that food are destroying the
environment upon which future food production depends. The food system contributes to
some 20-30% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG ) emissions, is the leading cause of
deforestation, land use change and biodiversity loss; it accounts for 70% of all human water
use while also polluting those water supplies. What is more, the system is not just a cause
but is also affected by these problems: as the impacts of climatic and environmental change
start to hit home, food production is becoming more difficult and unpredictable in many
regions of the world. Moving from land to sea, unsustainable fishing practices deplete
stocks of species we consume and also cause wider disruption to the marine environment.

And although food production and distribution contribute economic value both at a national
and international level, the distribution of that value is not even. Power is concentrated at
each stage in the food supply chain. To take just a few examples: four companies control
between 75% and 90% of the global grain trade; three control over 80% of the worlds tea
markets; four companies control 40% of international trading in cocoa, 51% of cocoa
grinding and 50% in confectionary manufacturing; and 10 retail companies control about
40% of food sales. In stark contrast, many of the 1.3 billion smallholders and landless
agricultural workers worldwide live on or below the poverty line. (World Bank 2008; Renwick
et al 2012).9 10

Finally, having produced this food at considerable environmental cost, much of it ends up
uneaten. An estimated 30-50% of all food produced is spoiled or wasted representing a
waste of land, water and other inputs, the generation of unnecessary emissions, and
contributing to food insecurity (IMECHE 2013).11

All the signs are that these problems are set to grow. Why? Not just because our population
is growing, meaning more mouths to feed, but also because our food demands are
changing. As people become, on average and with very stark exceptions richer, they
start to demand, and be able to afford not just more food, but more of the foods that they
like notably meat and dairy products.

If food is a convergence issue, meat and dairy foods sit at its very core. The rearing of
livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates some 14.5% of total global GHG emissions,
occupies 70% of agricultural land (including a third of arable land, needed also for crop
production), is the main agricultural cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and land

6
Swinburn, B.A., Sacks, G., Hall, K.D., McPherson, K., Finegood, D.T., Moodie, M.L., Gortmaker, S.L., 2011. The
global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments. The Lancet 378 (9793), 804e814.
7
FAO, 2011. The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome.
8
Tulchinsky TH. 2010. Micronutrient deficiency conditions: global health issues. Public Health Reviews; 32:243-
255.
9
World Bank, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, Washington DC, 2007, 135 136.
10
Renwick A, Islam M and Thomson S (2012). Power in Agriculture. Resources, Economics and Politics. A Report
Prepared for the Oxford Farming Conference, UK
11
IMECHE (2013). Global food: Waste not, want not, Institute of Mechanical Engineers, London, UK

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degradation, and a major source of water pollution. 12 13 And while meat tastes good, and
has important nutritional benefits, it is also high in calories and fat. As such, it is implicated
in rapid growth in diet related diseases now so prevalent not just in the rich developed world
but in developing countries too. Indeed most of the worlds obese and overweight are to
be found not in OECD countries but in low and middle income economies.14 Without action,
these problems are set to become even more acute.

Of course the issues are well recognised. Report after report ha been published, conference
after conference convened. Policy makers, NGOs and the business community all agree that
if we are to address our environmental problems, adapt to climate change and create a more
food secure, nutrition enhancing food future, then the current food system needs to change.

There is less agreement on what, exactly, should be done.

From a policy and industry perspective, most of the focus in recent years has been on
improving the environmental efficiency of production in order to produce more food with
less impact. This requires us to make more efficient use of the inputs in the production
process: fertilisers, pesticides, energy and water. It will require smarter plant and livestock
breeding strategies to help us increase productivities in the face of harder growing
conditions caused by environmental change, such as drought, flooding, soil salinity, and
temperature increases. We will also need to deal with the waste outputs such as manure
and crop residues - more effectively, by treating them as valuable resource inputs to a more
circular system of agriculture. And, critically, we will need to halt deforestation.

Others challenge this perspective. Or rather, while they agree that these production-side
approaches may be necessary, they are not sufficient. To tackle our environmental problems
adequately, while also dealing with the twin problems of dietary insufficiency and excess,
three additional approaches will also be needed. First, we need to address power imbalances
in the food system. As Amartya Sen so famously demonstrated, hunger is a consequence of
poverty rather than supply: "Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having
enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat." 15
Throwing more food at the problem will not help if people cannot afford it, or cannot access
it. Essential actions will therefore include efforts to address price and subsidy distortions,
support and empower smallholder farmers and landless workers, agree on better working
conditions and fairer terms of trade, and improve transport and storage and market
infrastructure. Second we need to reduce the amount of food that is lost or wasted along
the whole supply chain.

12
Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013.
Tackling climate change through livestock A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food
and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome.
13
FAO (2006) Livestocks Long Shadow. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation
14
Keats S and Wiggins S (2014). Future diets: Implications for agriculture and food prices. Overseas Development
Institute, UK.

15
Sen A (1981).Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford University Press, UK

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Third, diets will also need to change. What, and how much we eat directly affects what, and
how much is produced, as well as who gets to benefit from its production. We therefore
need to shift towards more sustainable diets diets that have lower environmental impacts,
are healthier and that are not only affordable but also support the livelihoods of those
responsible for producing and distributing food.

But what does such a diet look like? Even more problematically - how do we get people to
eat in this way?

Finding answers to these two questions could make a critical difference to the sustainability
of todays food system and thus to all of us and the planet we depend upon. While there
are as yet no answers - especially to the second question more and more advocacy
organisations and researchers are starting to think hard about these issues.

2. Two critical research questions

2.a. What is a sustainable healthy diet?

What is a sustainable healthy diet? Answering this will depend of course, on how one
defines sustainability and whether one defines health at an individual or at a population
level.

Definitions of sustainability vary. For some stakeholders, the word encompasses social and
economic dimensions, where environment, economy and society (incorporating health and
ethics) together constitute the triple pillars of sustainability. However, others use the word
more narrowly to refer to environmental objectives. More narrowly still, sustainability may
be used as a synonym for just one environmental goal, such as GHG reductions.

There is a growing body of work that focuses on the concept of a sustainable diet and how it
interfaces with health and nutrition. Much of the impetus comes from the environmental
community academics as well as advocacy NGOs - and as such, they tend to define
sustainability in in terms of its narrower environmental, rather than socio-economic
dimensions. Generally, these studies find that a low environmental impact diet is one
centred on a diverse range of tubers, whole grains, legumes and fruits and vegetables, with
animal products eaten sparingly. Such a diet is also broadly consistent with health. 16 17 1819 20
The lower the meat, fish and dairy content, the lower the environmental impact - and the
more important it will be that reduced meat intakes are compensated for with increases in

16
Vanham D, Hoekstra A Y, Bidoglio G (2013). Potential water saving through changes in European diets
Environment International 614556
17
Stehfest E, Bouwman L, van Vuuren DP et al.(2009) Climate benefits of changing diet. Climatic Change, 95, 12.
18
Pairotti M B, Cerutti A K, Martini F, Vesce E, Padovan D and Beltramo R (2014) Energy consumption and GHG
emission of the Mediterranean diet: a systemic assessment using a hybrid LCA-IO method. Journal of Cleaner
Production xxx 1e10
19
Van Kernebeek HRJ, Oosting SJ, Feskens EJM, Gerber PJ and De Boer IJM (2014). The effect of nutritional quality
on comparing environmental impacts of human diets, Journal of Cleaner Production xxx 1e-12
20
Van Dooren C and Kramer G (2012). Food patterns and dietary recommendations in Spain,
France and Sweden, www.livewellforlife.eu

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the quantity and diversity of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and legumes.2122 23 However
there may be some trade offs fish, for example, is good for health but many stocks of many
fish species are depleted, and overfishing harms not only the viability of target species but
also the marine ecosystem more generally. From a global perspective there is simply not
enough fish for everyone on the planet to consume as much as government health
guidelines recommend.

Moving from research to policy, a number of official bodies have attempted to provide more
detailed guidance on consuming healthily and with a lower environmental impact. The
Health Council of the Netherlands, for example ( HCN 2011)24, provides a detailed review of
the relationship between health and sustainability. It identifies areas of synergy, of conflict,
and where impacts are neutral. It finds a clear win-win in a shift to a less animal- and more
plant-based diet. For the overweight, lower intakes of energy in general and in particular of
confectionary-type foods would yield double benefits. However it notes the trade offs
around fish consumption.25 Swedens National Food Agency and the 2012 New Nordic
Recommendations offer similar guidance: eat less meat, choose fish from sustainable or
certified stocks, store vegetables that store well and consume perishable produce in season,
eat fewer cakes and so forth and minimise food waste. 26 27

This is currently the state of play as regards knowledge and recommendations. However
there at least four critically important questions that still need answering if we are to have a
more complete and accurate definition of a sustainable diet.

First, there is the relationship between production and consumption to consider. Analysis of
what constitutes an environmentally sustainable diet needs to take account of not what we
eat, but how these foods are produced. The method of production will determine how much
food can be produced for a given level of environmental cost. Equally, the production
method potentially influences a foods nutritional and other health properties. The issues
here are not easy. Recent years have seen the spotlight falling variously on organic
production and/or on locally sourced foods, with advocates arguing that such foods are not
only more environmentally sustainable but deliver health benefits. In fact, the issues are
complex. Taking organics first: overuse of pesticides and fertilisers generates serious
environmental problems and in these circumstances, a switch to organic and lower input
production will likely deliver gains from a health and environmental perspective. But in
regions such as Sub Saharan Africa, where the soils are degraded and inputs either organic
or inorganic are minimal, judicious use of fertilisers can help replenish soils and deliver
higher yields, while pesticides can help counter crop losses due to pests and disease. By

21
WWF UK (2011). Livewell: a balance of healthy and sustainable food choices, WWF UK, Godalming, UK
22
WWF UK (2011). Livewell: a balance of healthy and sustainable food choices, WWF UK, Godalming, UK
23
Van Dooren C and Kramer G (2012). Food patterns and dietary recommendations in Spain,
France and Sweden, www.livewellforlife.eu
24
HCN (2011) Guidelines for a healthy diet: the ecological perspective. Health Council of the Netherlands, The
Hague
25
HCN (2011) Guidelines for a healthy diet: the ecological perspective. Health Council of the Netherlands, The
Hague
26
National Food Agency, undated http://www.slv.se/en-gb/Group1/Food-and-environment/
27
Norden (2014).Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012, Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen

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maintaining or increasing production on existing land, there is less need to convert
additional land including forest - to compensate for low and dwindling yields. Thus there
can be a role for these inputs, provided they are not excessively applied. As for the merits of
local sourcing, this needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. Since the environmental
impacts at the agricultural stage are often so significant, more efficient agricultural
production in a more distant location can sometimes compensate for longer transport
distances (Webb et al 2013).28

Second, there rebound and leakage effects to consider. For example, if everyone in the UK
were to consume along the lines suggested, this might lead to an overall reduction in
environmental impacts or it might not. In principle, UK producers could continue farming
livestock and simply ratchet up their exports - thereby increasing availability overseas,
driving down prices and stimulating consumption. Or they may switch to producing other
foods. Or they may exit the sector altogether. At present, we do not understand fully what
might happen, but all of these possibilities will have varying environmental consequences.
This is an area that requires further research. It also underlines the point that production and
consumption are linked, that food markets are now globalised and that food and dietary
patterns need to be seen in the context of broader consumption practices from buying
shoes to holidaying overseas - and their environmental impacts.

Third, while knowledge about the link between nutritional objectives and environmental
sustainability is advancing, we know far less about the complex relationship between these
and other social and economic goals. However environmentally low impact it might look on
paper, a system of production and consumption that does not pay producers adequately or
that consumers cannot afford can hardly be judged to be sustainable from a societal and
economic point of view. At present, most of the work on sustainable diets has been driven
by the environmental agenda understandably so, in view of the massive environmental
problems we face. However it also reflects the fact that social and economic objectives are
extremely hard to agree upon. For example: food should be affordable, but does that mean
that cheap food is good? Is small scale or large scale production to be preferred? Is equality
an end in itself or can its pursuit stifle innovation? There may well be synergies between
nutritional adequacy, environmental sustainability and certain economic goals, but there are
also likely to be costs: how should these be balanced? How do we trade off present gains
against future losses, and vice versa? How far can or should we actually alter the workings of
the global economy is radical change actually possible or desirable?

Fourth, most of the discourse on sustainable diets centres on rich-world, developed country
contexts. Yet most of the growth in food-related environmental impacts from meat and
dairy consumption, and most of the rise in obesity and chronic diseases, are taking place in
developing countries, particularly in the rapidly industrialising economies of South and South
East Asia, and South America. The reasons are simple: these regions are home to most of
the worlds agriculture, most of the worlds population, and most of the growth in living
standards. There are more people, their populations are growing faster and their diets are

28
Webb J, Williams A G, Hope E, Evans D and Moorhouse E (2013). Do foods imported into the UK have a greater
environmental impact than the same foods produced within the UK?
Int J Life Cycle Assess (2013) 18:13251343

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shifting more rapidly than people in the less populous, less economically dynamic developed
world. The implications are unarguable: if we are to address the social, health and
environmental problems inherent in our food system, then diets in low and developing
countries need to be sustainable. This observation potentially raises many hackles given the
historical responsibility of rich countries for the environmental problems we face today and
for the inequities in the global food economy; and the fact that, while obesity and chronic
diseases are on the rise, the problems of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity have by no
means gone away. The challenge here is to consider how sustainable diets might interface
with broader developmental and societal objectives: the priority here is to orient
development along lower impact, more nutritious pathways, which is, of course, easier said
than done.

Finally once we have worked out what an environmentally sustainable, nutritious,


affordable and equitable diet looks like how do we get people to eat it?

2.b. Changing behaviour ought we, can we, how?

Why do we do what we do, buy what we buy and eat what we eat? And how can people be
persuaded to do, eat and buy differently in cases when those behaviours do harm, either to
the individuals themselves, or to society and the environment more generally?

There is a vast body of work that focuses on behaviour and on behaviour change. Some of it
is driven by public interest organisations and priorities, covering issues as diverse as health
(smoking, drug addiction, obesity, alcohol), voting practices, organ donation, pro-
environmental behaviour and sustainable consumption. And of course some of it is driven
by industry, for which an understanding of peoples behaviours and motivations is central to
the development of effective marketing strategies. Of course, some shifts in behaviour are
easier to achieve than others, generally in cases where there is an obvious immediate
advantage to the individual. Hence the success of mobile technologies or the popularity of
new kinds of chocolate bar. Others are hard generally where an individual has to trade off
immediate gratification against longer term reward, be that reward at an individual or more
distantly still, at a societal level.

The literature on behaviour and behaviour change is vast, inchoate and spans a very diverse
range of topics. Valiant attempts have been made to cluster and categorise them and while
there are huge overlaps, broadly speaking, it can be said that the type of work undertaken
falls into three overlapping categories.29 303132

29
Darnton A. 2008. Behaviour Change Knowledge Review. Practical Guide: An overview of behaviour change
models and their uses. Government Social Research Unit, UK
30
Darnton A. 2008. Behaviour Change Knowledge Review. Reference Report: An overview of behaviour change
models and their uses. Government Social Research Unit, UK.
31
Jackson, T. (2004) Models of Mammon: A Cross-Disciplinary Survey in Pursuit of The Sustainable Consumer,
Working Paper Series, Nr 2004/1, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, Guildford, United
Kingdom.
32
Jackson T (2005). Motivating Sustainable Consumption: a review of evidence on consumer behaviour and
behavioural change. A report to the Sustainable Development Research Network, Centre for Environmental
Strategy, University of Surrey, Guildford, United Kingdom.

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First, there are the models of behaviour. These try and map out the factors that cause
people to behave the way they do. The focus may be on the individual, considering factors
such as knowledge, attitudes, motivations (conscious and unconscious), norms, habits and
genetic make up; or on the social context, that is, the economic, cultural, physical, familial,
temporal and normative influences on that individual. Many models try and integrate the
two. Generally speaking, the more detailed the model, the more accurate it is likely to be,
but the harder it is to identify possible points for intervention - with the wonderfully,
monstrously entangled obesity map, produced by UK Governments 2007 Foresight report a
case in point.33

Second, there are the theories of change how to get from behaviour A to behaviour B
from eating too much, to eating less, from smoking to not smoking. These theories vary in
their level of specificity (individual versus societal change), in the extent to which they
include external factors such as an enabling or prescribing environment - and in the extent
to which they incorporate temporal elements and constructive or destructive feedback loops.
34 35 3637

And finally, there are the interventions themselves the suite of approaches that might
conceivably serve to influence behaviour. The options might span education and
information provision, social marketing approaches, fiscal incentives and disincentives and
regulation. They may focus on the individual or on the context within which a behaviour
takes place (school, supermarket, journey to work and so forth). As in the case of the models
and theories, they often take a visual form, such as ladders and wheels.3839

As noted, these categories very much overlap. Most of these models and theories have
something to offer, although none of them will be perfect and complete representations of
reality. Most of them reflect the biases of a particular disciplinary background (primarily
psychology, sociology or economics). Generally, they will be most applicable to the issue that
they were originally designed to represent or address (intravenous drug use, say).40 But they
are also influenced by ideologies for example, where the locus of responsibility is seen to
lie, what sorts of intervention are judged to be legitimate and fair, and how far behaviour is

33
Foresight (2007). Tackling Obesities: Future Choices. Government Office for Science, UK
34
Prochaska, J., Johnson, S., & Lee, P. (1998). The transtheoretical model of behavior change. In S. Schumaker, E.
Schron, J. Ockene &
W. McBee (Eds.), The Handbook of Health Behavior Change, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Springer.
35
Lewin, K 1951. Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers. D Cartwright (ed.). New York, NY:
Harper & Row.
36
Rogers, E 1995. Diffusion of Innovation (5th edition). New York: Free Press.
37
Defra 2008. A Framework for Pro-Environmental Behaviours. Department for the Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs London
38
Nuffield (2007). Chapter 3: Policy process and practice in Public health: ethical issues. Nuffield Council on
Bioethics, UK.
39
Michie, S., Van Stralen, M.M. & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising
and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6.
40
Darnton A. 2008. Behaviour Change Knowledge Review. Practical Guide: An overview of behaviour change
models and their uses. Government Social Research Unit, UK

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seen to be a consequence of rational thought as opposed to automatic or instinctive
impulses. For some people, the problem lies with the individual and the individual is
responsible for changing his or herself. One can provide knowledge and information, but no
more. For others the problem may lie with a socio-economic system that unequally
distributes knowledge, agency, and ability. Individual behaviour can only change if the
broader superstructures the planning and regulatory framework, the balance of fiscal
incentives and disincentives, societal norms and so forth - are changed. These differences in
views will in turn influence whether, for example, one sees regulation as valid way of
influencing the context of consumption, or whether one dismisses this as nanny state
interventionism.

Food is where the spheres of health and the environment intersect. While, as highlighted
above, dietary change can potentially make a significant contribution to environmental
sustainability and individual health, our understanding of how this change is to be achieved
is still at an embryonic stage. In order to address this knowledge gap, it is necessary know
more about the following:

Diets and behaviour change: what is the change we want to achieve? As suggested in
section 2.a., while we are starting to have an idea about the direction of travel, there
is still much more work to do.
How far are we from that change as regards peoples current food patterns and
behaviours? What do we know, for example, about who eats what, how much, where
and when, and how these vary by socio economic group, by context, by life stage
and over time?
Models of behaviour: Why do people behave they way they do? Which models are of
most help in exploring the food issue? For example, what do people think and feel
about meat? How does this vary by age, gender and so forth?
Theories of change: What are the processes by which changes in behaviour happen?
Again, which theories are most useful with respect to food?
Intervening for change: how can people be induced to behave differently? Of all the
interventions that are possible:
o do we have evidence of their effectiveness?
o do we understand what the effects in the round might be, including
unplanned and undesirable side effects?; and
o how do we judge them in terms of acceptability taking account of
considerations such as fairness, cost, moral and political legitimacy?
Values and ideologies: Stakeholders often have different theories of behaviour, of how
it can be changed, and of what interventions are possible and legitimate. We need to
understand how these influence peoples views on what is possible and desirable, as
well as consider if and how consensus might be reached.
On the basis of the above, what do we know with respect to food, behaviour and
behaviour change; what do we not know, and what are the priority knowledge gaps
that need to be filled?

Taken together these constitute an important and interconnected set of research priorities.
In order to kick off a programme of work in this area, the Food Climate Research Network is
organising an interdisciplinary, intersectoral workshop in April 2014 that will seek in the first

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instance to map out the territory, with a view to defining a set of critical priority research
questions that need to investigated and addressed.

3. Who is doing what?


The food sustainability space is increasingly densely populated by a diverse range of actors.
These include environmental, international development and animal welfare NGOs;
researchers in the fields of health, the agricultural sciences, ecology, environmental life cycle
analysis, sociology and international development; institutions such as the Food and
Agriculture Organisation, World Health Organisation and the Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research; and of course the food industry.

As regards the latter, the approaches adopted by the food industry are fairly polarised. On
the one hand, there are the small, and alternative enterprises who are driven by a particular
vision or aesthetic of what sustainability looks like; they often prioritise organic, local and
artisanal production. On the other, are the very large national and international retailers and
manufacturers whose focus tends to be on improving the efficiency of their existing
operations and food offers. The engagement by many of these companies in the issues has
developed considerably in the last decade. From a fairly simple starting point of addressing
the trucks and sheds side of their operations their transport fleets and their direct energy
use they are now starting to consider, however imperfectly, the sustainability of their
sourcing strategies. For example, many companies now have policies and action targets in
areas as diverse as fish stocks, responsible sourcing of oil palm and soy and on measuring
and reducing product carbon and water footprints, as well as on socio-economic issues such
as working conditions and gender. However, as yet, none of them have explicitly started to
engage in the question of sustainable diets that is, on open access to information on the
types of foods that they manufacture and sell. This, for all the reasons outlined above, poses
considerable practical as well as commercial challenges. But if genuine shifts in the
sustainability of the food system are to be achieved, this is an issue they will have to address.

4. Priorities for action

The food sustainability challenge is massive, contested and urgent. Many organisations
and stakeholders recognise the scale of the problem and are chipping away at it, on the
basis of their own perspectives and expertise. Most of the activity so far has been on
production side approaches, on improved efficiencies of production and distribution.
Increasingly however, it is starting to be recognised that while these production side
approaches are essential, other strategies will be needed too. These will include measures to
improve the equity of the food system and to reduce food waste. Equally essential will be a
general global shift towards more sustainable diets. Measures are needed not just to
address overconsumption in high income countries and among a growing number of
consumers in developing countries, but also to ensure that, as food systems in low income
countries change and develop, they orient along more sustainable pathways - so as to avoid
the huge retrofitting challenge we face today in countries such as the UK and US.

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If we are to shift towards more sustainable diets, there are many knowledge gaps that need
to be filled.

In the area of what is a sustainable diet? we need to know more about:

The relationship between production and consumption so as to avoid leakage and


rebound effects
The socio economic dimensions of sustainability and how we might address and
prioritise among trade offs where needed
what constitutes a sustainable healthy diet in low income and developing countries.

Moving on from defining sustainable diets to embedding them in peoples actual practices,
we need to know more about how behaviour change might be achieved. This will require:

Greater understanding of why people consume the way they do


Greater understanding of what levers and interventions are effective in achieving
change
What the risks of intervening might be, which might include equity implications or
unwanted environmental or health consequences
Greater understanding of the values that people bring to the idea of sustainable
diets, to behaviour change and to the legitimacy of different interventions.

Underpinning all the above is greater awareness among policy makers and the food
industry in particular of the need to tackle the consumption as well as production side of
the sustainability challenge. We also need greater understanding of the complexity of the
issues and how they interact although complexity should not be used as justification for
inaction. And we need greater collective, multistakeholder engagement in discussions not
just about the science and the evidence, but about the values and ideologies that different
stakeholders bring to the discussion about sustainable food. We need to understand how,
why and where we disagree and agree, if we are to move forward.

5. The role of the social entrepreneur

There is a long and diverse tradition of food-related social entrepreneurship. Much of it is


inspired by and seeks to develop the alternative organic and/or local food movement - and
initiatives such as community supported agriculture, box schemes, and farmers markets
can now be found all over the world. There is also a great deal of entrepreneurial activity
aimed at empowering disadvantaged sectors of society by equipping them with new skills.
Examples here include successful restaurant initiatives such as Jamie Olivers Fifteen or the
Brixton Prisons The Clink which train up unemployed people or prisoners respectively so
that they can then go on to secure subsequent employment in the catering industry. Tackling
issues of disadvantage from another angle, there is also a plethora of food co-ops and food
banks that distribute supermarket food nearing its sell-by date to those in need, or that run
community based cooking classes for people with low skills or on low income.

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The rise in mobile technologies has had a profound impact on the sorts of initiatives being
developed. Recent years have seen a proliferation of mobile phone apps which enable users
to do anything from locating vegetarian or organic shops and restaurants, to calculating the
carbon footprint of their shopping basket, or to linking local producers with consumers
wanting to buy their food. In low income countries, mobile technologies are also enabling
farmers to access weather forecasts, learn about the latest market prices for the crops they
are producing or share solutions with other farmers. All of these initiatives are interesting
and many are thriving. However while their breadth and diversity of all these activities are
indicative of the entrepeneurial energy in this sector, their actual impacts on the
environment and on the people involved have not always - or even often - been assessed.
Some initiatives are set up on the basis of assumptions that may not always bear close
scientific scrutiny such as the belief that local is necessarily always better. Other schemes
may set out to benefit particular groups in society often those on low incomes but in fact
may see greater traction among wealthier middle class communities. The success of other
initiatives are, by their very nature, hard to assess: while we may know how many people
have downloaded an app, say, we dont necessarily know if they are using it when they go
shopping or whether it has actually led to changes in what they eat. There is a need for more
rigorous monitoring of impact an area where the academic community can help.

Finally, the subject of behaviour change per se is not often a focus for entrepreneurial
activity. There are of course plenty of (valuable) enterprises that aim to provide people with
organic turnips, for example, or to equip people with new empowering skills. Implicit in
these schemes is the idea that a change in behaviour will be achieved. But there is also a
need for imaginative initiatives that focus not so much on delivering an end product (turnips,
knowledge) but in explicitly testing out different approaches to incentivising behaviour
change in order to find out what works. There is thus a hugely important role for social
entrepreneurs here in coming up with ideas about how one might go about prompting,
nudging and otherwise incentivising changes in behaviour. The success of these ideas then
needs to be rigorously monitored and assessed, and this is where the research community
can come in. In short, closer interaction between entrepreneurs on the one hand, and
researchers on the other can potentially lead to the design of projects that not only sound
great, but actually deliver measurable results.

About the Food Climate Research Network


The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) is an interdisciplinary, intersectoral and
international network focused on food systems, climate and sustainability. It is based at the
Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. Its vision is for a nutrition-
driven, ethically mindful food system that sits within environmental limits. To achieve this we
need to know more about the multifaceted challenges we face and the solutions that are
possible, and we need to work together across sectors, disciplines and perspectives to
build mutual understanding and collaborate for change. To this end, the FCRN works to:
produce and disseminate integrative, accessible, trusted and policy relevant research; broker
dialogue between stakeholders with very different specialisms and views; and in so doing to
catalyse action for change. It has a membership that spans around 2500 individuals, over 70
countries and disciplines ranging from soil science to animal ethics to public health nutrition.

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It is free to join and open to all. For more information see www.fcrn.org.uk or contact Tara
Garnett taragarnett@fcrn.org.uk .

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