Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Stockholm Environment Institute's online course, Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds The question of how consumer patterns and consumer behavior influence food systems is a very important question. And I must admit, it’s very complex. Because the way food influences the environment has to do with the entire value chain, from the field to the fork. And it means that the consumer comes in at the end of that pathway.

Skip to 0 minutes and 35 seconds Now, I would argue that we’ve come to a point where the challenges we’re facing with regards to the food’s unsustainable impacts on the climate system, on freshwater, biodiversity, is so large that we cannot rely on consumer behavior to change fast enough to really transform the world to decarbonize the energy system, which actually now has to happen over the next 30 years, according to the Paris Climate Agreement. So fundamentally, actually, human behavior may not be so important as we often think, while in fact we need political leadership. We need planetary scale regulation. We need tough, legally binding decisions, such as we now have in the Paris Agreement, such as we have with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 seconds To guide and create incentives for humanity to start really change behavior towards sustainable consumption and production. However, we live in democracies. We choose our leaders. We know that leaders are influenced by the way you and I behave. So I think today that behavioral change does not necessarily, should not necessarily be seen as a solution to sustainable food systems. But rather to be the signal and the momentum and create the real confidence among those who decide, from business and politics, on how we transition.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds So to take one example, if we conclude, as science has shown clearly, that we need to have diets that are much more based on vegetarian food and much less based on intensive meat industrial systems, well, that requires political leadership from above and regulations to push, for example, a tax on carbon from food. But how do you get that tax? Well, probably you get that tax with behavioral change and signals from consumers, where young people started saying, hey, we’re going to go over here. We’re going to consume sustainably. We don’t want to have this unsustainable food anymore. And then we can get change. So it’s a kind of a mutually intertwined system.

Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds Then I should close by saying though that behavioral change is, of course, important. But not only for the planet, but also for our own health. That’s quite interesting. We start finding more and more evidence that if you eat sustainably, you also eat healthy food, which means you live longer, you’re happier, and you can actually have a better life. So there’s something quite interesting here with behavioral change, which has to do with win-win solutions for us as individuals.

Consumer behaviour

In this video, Johan Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, lays out the rationale for a multi-level, multi-actor approach for achieving sustainable food systems, explaining the roles and responsibilities of both consumers and governments.


Johan points out that while individual choices are significant, they are not enough, on their own, to make the transformative changes necessary for sustainable outcomes in food systems. Instead, people need to collectively make demands from their institutions to instigate larger-scale food system changes, creating this multi-level, multi-actor approach to governance. With modern, industrial food systems spanning the globe, change may need to be driven by larger-scale actors, such as national governments and regional alliances.

However, on a national, regional or even global level, aligning the agendas of individuals, groups, communities, cities, nations, and regions is complicated and challenging. We will learn more about the challenges to achieving sustainable food systems in Week 5 of this course.

Do you think pressuring big companies to change unsustainable practices is the responsibility of the consumer or of governments, or both? What should ‘conscious consumers’ do to help promote more sustainable food systems?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute