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Many people are unaware that food choices impact the environment

The foods we choose to eat have environmental impacts in terms of their production, processing, transport and sale. Considering that humanity is facing increasingly dire consequences of global warming and climate change, it is important to understand how our food choices contribute to environmental problems. Ideally, people should be encouraged to change their diets such that the environmental impacts are minimized, but many different barriers to change currently exist. 

In a study published in the journal Appetite, researchers interviewed 21 British participants about their knowledge and understanding of what constitutes a sustainable diet, and whether they would be prepared to make the necessary changes. The participants were mostly young adults who cooked for themselves, or for others in the household. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), sustainable diets are “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” Previous research has suggested that 20–30 percent of environmental impacts in Europe and the UK originate from supplying the foods that people choose to eat; these impacts arise from greenhouse gas emissions, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of water, among others.

Previous modeing studies have suggested that the negative impacts can be reduced through changes to dietary consumption. For example, it is commonly understood that the production of animals and animal products has significant negative consequences for environments and for the planet as a whole, and that eating a plant-based diet is less environmentally damaging. 

In the current study, researchers from the Bournemouth University took a qualitative approach and conducted in-depth interviews with the 21 participants. The participants were asked various questions about their understanding of a sustainable diet and their willingness to make changes in their own food choices. In this way, the researchers gained detailed, rich and personal responses from the participants. The interview transcripts were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis.

Four themes were identified, in the participants’ responses, that related to understanding sustainable diets: ‘Consistent with the definition by the FAO,’ ‘Multiple benefits,’ ‘Unsure’ and ‘Competing Interests.’ Similarly, four themes were identified relating to making changes to one’s diet: ‘Willing, but unsure,’ ‘Small, easy changes,’ ‘Enablers’ and ‘Barriers.’

Within these themes, participants were able to define sustainable eating in a manner that was consistent with the definition by the FAO, could identify sustainable actions that they were undertaking or could undertake, and considered these to be beneficial. However, there was a lot of uncertainty expressed by the participants. Many did not know, or were very unsure of, what constituted a sustainable diet, and some admitted to choosing foods without considering the consequences for the environment or planet at all. Others thought their diet was sustainable to some degree already, that there was no need for them to change, and that they were content with the diet that they already had, for their lifestyle, pocket, and tastes.

“When thinking about how to live more sustainably, people seem to understand that this can mean taking fewer flights, using the car less, recycling more, but it seems that not everyone is aware of the difference that changing their diet can make as well,” explained Professor Katherine Appleton, who led the study.

Participants were also unclear on what would make their food choices more environmentally sustainable. When it came to making changes to their diet, participants explained that they would be willing to do that to help the environment, but there was significant uncertainty about what changes they should make. There is clearly a lot of contradictory information around concerning the best foods to eat in order to ensure a minimal environmental footprint.

Participants expressed the preference for making small, easy changes of high impact in their diets, but there was again considerable uncertainty as to exactly what changes to make. Their comments indicated hesitation and concern that any actions they may take could be sustainable from one perspective, but not from another. For example, eating tofu made from soy may be a suitable replacement for meat in a diet, but if forest has been cleared to plant that soy then its carbon footprint can be as much as twice that produced when raising chickens. 

The researchers concluded that far more needs to be done to increase public awareness and knowledge of sustainable diets, and to educate people about the links between food production and environmental damage. They also recommend that sustainable foods need to be made more available and accessible to consumers, and that information concerning sustainable foods should be easy to access and should stem from credible, objective sources. 

“We were surprised by our findings. We had originally intended looking at how we can encourage people to eat more foods such as beans and pulses, but we discovered that people still don’t know enough about why this is important, so to talk about increasing the consumption of specific foods is getting too far ahead for many,” explained Professor Appleton.

“We need to promote greater awareness and knowledge of how changes to eating habits can go some way to helping the planet, while also offering some suggested changes that are likely to be acceptable and acted upon,” she added.

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By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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