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Sustainable diets: rational goal, irrational consumers?

April 11, 2017
Tim Lang

In this blog-post FCRN member Tim Lang, Professor at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, shares some reflections on how the Great Food Transition he describes in the book Sustainable Diets can be achieved, the barriers to change that persist and some policy developments from different countries that we can learn from.

Hill farming in Lancashire UK in the 1970s formed his interest in relationship between food, health, environment, culture and political economy. He co-wrote Food Wars (2015), Unmanageable Consumer (2015), Ecological Public Health (2012) and Food Policy (2009)

Mapping and dissecting the sustainable diet problem is among the ultimate interdisciplinary scientific tasks of today. I don’t say that lightly. For the last 20 or so years, the evidence that diet is a driver of some of the major challenges facing humanity has grown, not diminished. And the scale of the task has quietly dawned on all who monitor and explore the nature of food’s impact on society, ecosystems and economy.

What seems to be required to right the wrongs is nothing short of a transformation of the food system. Indeed, in Sustainable Diets, the new book I co-authored with Pamela Mason, we call this the Great Food Transition. 

Production and supply chains have a key responsibility for this change, of course, but the elephant in the room is consumption. And in a world where consumers are said to be sovereign - but often aren’t quite in reality - this can be no-go political territory. Politicians bow before consumers, their voters. So is this political lock-in inevitable? Is the world doomed to eat more unsustainable diets, high in carbon, embedded water, calories and hidden social and health burdens? Unless, that is, the mass of consumers all miraculously choose to eat sustainably? If so, what will spark this rapid change? In this blog-post, I want to argue a less cynical case and analysis, one which supports consumers while addressing the enormity of changes implied by the hard data in favour of recalibrating food culture around sustainable diets. It has to begin by rejecting the promise that there can be instant dietary change. There have been too many of these modern millennial cults already – think ‘clean eating’ or my favourite for loopiness, the ‘breatharians’, people who argue one can live on air alone!  

Almost wherever one starts, the problem cannot be resolved without requiring consumers to change. It’s the same for the scientific process itself. Say one begins with a concern about climate change, pretty quickly one realises that dietary change has to be part of the response. Say your interest is in water, it’s the same, because food is among the biggest users of water. And spread of non-communicable disease across the planet, the same, because diet is now the linking factor in the leading causes of premature death worldwide. And land use, the same.  And social inequalities, too. As the evidence has grown, the penny has dropped. We cannot resolve these issues by single issue policy recommendations or behaviour change.  There has to be systems change.

No wonder, so many specialist scientists are now intellectually deeply troubled by diet. Quietly, inexorably, formidably, we end up realising that we can no longer remain in subject ‘boxes’. Our interests are pulled across the natural and social sciences. But what to do about it all? Here, we become hazy. There’s a collective scratching of heads. ‘Something must be done.’ But by whom? Triggered by what? Going where? Supported by which social forces?

I would say this, being one of only a handful of academics focussing on policy aspects of sustainable diets, but there really is a desperate need for more attention to the political side of the sustainable diets challenge. Reviewing the large body of knowledge, with my co-author Pamela Mason, it became clear that while the data and studies of sustainable diets have grown wonderfully in the last decade, there is an almost inverse proportion of literature on what to do about it. Most discussion is policy ‘lite’. ‘Something must be done.’  Meanwhile, if policy-makers get engaged by dietary change, the default position tends to be a love-in with behavioural economics, ‘nudge’, etc.  This can be clever but pales, in my view, before the enormity of what’s entailed by righting unsustainable diets. To put it starkly, if all FCRN’s subscribers went vegan overnight, it would make not a jot of difference to planetary (or even regional) dietary unsustainability. It’s population shift we need, not virtuous choice-led niche change.

The good news is that at the production end, there is a lot of work by commerce trying to de-carbonise food products or to reduce packaging or to reformulate to cut calories. This is choice-editing work, acting below the radar, and without troubling consumers. Occasionally, journalists sniff that a favourite chocolate bar is getting a recipe change or a size drop, and then there is media-outrage. Industry insiders, meanwhile, acknowledge that at some point consumers will have to be brought into the process. This is what we’ve done over sugar and obesity, and also about salt.

Another response to the enormity of what sustainable diets entail is to focus on one feature. This appeals to pragmatists. Forget the complexity, let’s just sort out one thing at a time. Waste is a favoured target. But look at what’s happened to WRAP’s sterling efforts on waste in the UK. A huge advertising programme – akin to the efforts on HIV/Aids in the 1980s – and then WRAP’s government budget was cut, to bail out consumer capitalism. Anti-waste work is great, but WRAP’s own data show there’s been a reduction in effectiveness.  Much could be done but it needs political will. An arms-length consultancy body cannot now sort the UK’s profligacy. If that’s the case in the 5th richest economy on the planet, now think globally. Where’s the effort to cut waste in the USA, or across the OECD?

No wonder, specialist scientists can become disheartened, or – whisper it quietly – say over a beer or wine, nothing big will change till there’s a crisis. There are good grounds for being sober about progress. Maybe these are simply uncertain times, more than usual. Global tensions are high. The political economy is fragile, ten years on from the Great Recession (2007-10), when 20th century capitalism wobbled. But how woeful has been the response to data on unsustainable diets! Just consider how pathetic has been the official nutrition policy response to the evidence for sustainable diets.  In 2015 there was the disgraceful rejection by the US Secretaries of State for Agriculture and Health of their scientific advisory committee’s vast report. This was under President Obama, note, not Mr Trump, although we noted how agricultural sector power trumped health even then. And consider the arm-twisting that went on to neutralise any centrality for environmental aspects of diet in the 2011-13 Australian dietary guidelines revisions, too. And what about the shameful dumping of first the Integrated Advice to Consumers programme and then the Green Food project by the UK Coalition Government in 2010-13? I leave to last the sordid saga of how Sweden was made to withdraw its sustainable diet advice by the European Food Safety Authority, reputedly following pressure from US meat interests via Poland. It’s a tribute to Sweden that it didn’t flounce out of the EU but instead came back with ‘lighter’, more cultural sustainable diet advice. It didn’t give up.

There is a lesson here. The Swedish bodies which created the 2009 advice had good policy-links. Sweden has a more corporatist culture than either USA or Australia. Perhaps we need to develop different strategies for different political cultures. As we have long argued in the Centre for Food Policy, the notion that food policy is ‘evidence-based’ is fiction. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. There are many examples of policies without or with partial evidence, and many bodies of evidence looking for policies.

The good news is that great teams and wider networks have emerged around sustainable diets in the recent renaissance. FCRN is a key illustration. But we need to be self-critical too. Trump didn’t get elected by evidence but by appealing to ignored social forces. Brexit came from divided political forces and the opportunity for swathes of British society to upset the apple-cart. The struggle for sustainable diets has only really begun. I take heart from the 19th century struggle to rein in run-away food adulteration, as societies industrialised. Alas, it was scandals not just science which got legislative change; and it took 60 years and much organisation, with political expression. Some years ago, fresh from a role at the 2010 FAO-Bioversity Scientific Convention on Sustainable Diets, I began to discuss in parts of the UN whether we needed an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Diets (modelled on the IPCC, of course). Too cumbersome, too expensive, and many in the UN have resented IPCC was the response. Instead we now have a flurry of smaller, leaner initiatives: the International Panel of Experts on Food (IPES-Food), the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, and the coalitions of funders such as the Global Alliance, and the Wellcome Trust’s move into the nexus of Health and Environment. These are all reasons to be cheerful. But without political expression, we’ll not get leverage.

Here too there are major discussions to have. Funders have ‘nudged’ researchers into writing briefings for decision-makers. Keep lobbing the balls into Parliamentary systems and surely something will result. Hmm. It can, but it often does not. Better a dinner with the President’s family? My own thinking is that we’ll only get sustainable diets up the policy / political agenda if we win the public. That requires scientists everywhere to work with civil society patiently to win public support.  If the goal is to help consumers normalise sustainable diets, where better to start than with consumers?

*image credit: 1) Vanessa Lollipop, Flickr, Creative Commons licence 2.0, 2) Ellen Munro 'Beans', Flickr, Creative commons licence 2.0.

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We would like to recommend a few other posts and reports that discuss some of the country examples and policy developments mentioned in this blog-post.

FCRN reports and papers

Tara Garnett FCRN (Science commentary) Plating up solutions: Changing the food system to provide sustainable healthy diets (2016)

Tara Garnett FCRN: Policy briefing on Sustainable and Healthy Eating Patterns? (2016)

FCRN Report: Metrics for sustainable healthy diets: why, what how? (2016)

FCRN and FAO report: Plates, pyramids and planet – Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment (2016)

FCRN discussion paper: Policies and actions to shift eating patterns: What works? (2015)

FCRN report:  What is a sustainable healthy diet? (2014)


Read Tim Lang’s blog-post about Brexit from 2016 Food, Brexit and the Consequences: what can academics and the UK food movement do?

Sue Dibb from Eating Better discusses in this blog-post the background modeling of the Eatwell guide and an Oxford University analysis identifying a huge gap between a healthy & sustainable diets and what the UK population is actually eating.

Related to specific country examples from Tim’s post, read this post by Elin Röös discussing how Environmental concerns now in Sweden’s newly launched dietary guidelines, a post by Michael Hamm on U.S. Dietary Guidelines Report – What's the Fuss Over Sustainability? and the blog-post by Lucy Luo from JUCCCE on The new Chinese dietary guidelines – what do they really say on meat consumption and sustainability?

You might also be interested in this Sustainability assessment from The Carbon Trust of new UK Eatwell Guide.


calvinheim's picture
Submitted by calvinheim (not verified) on

One way (among many) to win public support for sustainable diets would be to compute the food choices available to the consumer for their convenience. We could make it easier for consumers to discover food guideline proposals and to evaluate the practicality of proposed guidelines in this manner.

To be clear, this idea of computing food choices is not a recommendation for the current practice of suggesting a choice like "Leafy vegetable" and then expecting the consumer to do a physical search for a product at their grocery store matching "Leafy vegetable", where the product found has the receipt name "CABBAGE HD" and is priced at $2.00 each. Rather, the idea is to have a record like ("Cabbage" "CABBAGE HD" "$2" "each") already at the fingertips of the consumer when the "Leafy Vegetable" filter is applied.

With this foodscape map data in place, the choices would be optionally constrained and filtered according to upcoming dietary guidelines at the user's behest. These guidelines could be independently published in a format amenable to computer scripts. The scripts would translate the guidelines to filters and bounds. The resulting filters would shape the choices available to the consumer under the proposed guidelines. In sum, the consumer would gain exposure to sustainable guidelines in terms of the concrete food choices available in their local foodscape.

The main downside to this computer-based choice architecture is that it requires the consumer to own and use a computer. It also appeals less to people with fewer dietary concerns. It appeals more to people with challenging dietary requirements, such as athletes. The imbalance of appeal may lead to only gradual change in dietary behavior if this path is pursued. Another downside is the challenge of charting the foodscape itself. This effort requires a network of contributors to collaborate to build and distribute food rosters for each venue visited by the network. But these challenges are not insurmountable.

Barbara Seed's picture
Submitted by Barbara Seed (not verified) on

In the words of Johnny Mercer, "You've got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative ...You've got to spread joy up to the maximum."
Consumers are likely to respond better to positive messages like "increase consumption of plant-based foods", rather than negative messages such as "reduce intake of meat"  (although both can achieve the same goal).
Further, focus on changes that:
i. Support changes that consumers are already making (reinforce good habits)
ii. Are simple for consumers to follow through on.

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