Consumer Trends and Sustainability
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In February 2019, a commission of world leading scientists published a document in the “Lancet” a nutrition and health journal, stating the urgency of a global transformation of the food system.
More than 2.5 billion people worldwide suffer from at least one form of malnutrition. Poor diets are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality across the world. Simulatenously, current food production methods are unsustainable with the agriculture sector contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions and a major cuase of soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and freshwater pollution. It is vital we trnasform the food system to deliver better health and environmental outcomes.
The Eat-Lancet Commission was tasked with using the best available evidence to determine a universal reference diet that would feed a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary boundaries that does not jeporadise the environment for future generations.
It is indeed possible to feed a global population of nearly 10 billion people with a healthy diet, but only if we transform our dietary patterns, improve food production practices and reduce food losses and waste.
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The Planetary Health Diet
The EAT-lancet report sets out what its calls a healthy and sustainable diet, the Planetary Healthy Diet. This ‘new’ reference healthy diet is a largely plant based diet which consist largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, and includes a low or moderate amount of seafood and poultry; and little to no red meat.
This means a significant shift from an animal-based diet to plant and alternative proteins, which has to be linked to a more sustainable food production that will regulate the State of the Earth.
The Role of the Consumer
It is widely acknowledged that we need to do more to preserve our planet and stop environmental degradation and that our behaviours and choices as consumers are key to sustainability. However, prehaps not all of us have understood the importance of a dietary shift.
Today’s consumer needs to be mindful of our food ecosystem to be able to re-balance our food chain before it collapses due to high demands and climate changes, which are already affecting crop yields and composition.
To develop new food products, the food industry attempts to anticipate consumer new trends and to capitalize on the “next big thing” by running large market testing and surveys, usually distinguishing various consumer groups such as millennials or generation Zs.
The most recent market studies indicate that consumers wants to be more aware of where their food comes from and what it may contain. This also includes choosing products that are perceived as more natural, minimally processed, and contain well-known ingredients. Of course, global food scandals have also eroded consumer trust. This trend for cleaner labels and less ingredients is also linked to the need for more transparency in the whole food supply chain, which comes hand in hand with digitalization. In other words, we are not only more mindful, but we are also becoming more connected. The connectivity also creates many trends and personal opinions on what is good and bad for you and your health, which are not always based on data.
Leading healthy and active lifestyles seem to go hand in hand with a demand for a more balanced diet. These more “interested” consumers welcome product modifications with positive nutritional effects, such as increased protein and fiber, and decreased sugar. Products that offer health benefits are becoming very appealing, but their role in a “sustainable diet” is still not a priority, although wrong nutrition, such as overconsumption and underconsumption, is an issue of sustainable development.
Consumers still demand products tasting similarl to the original products and have become used to safe food and robust food supply over the last thirty years, and it will therefore be hard to compromise on.
Healthy diets will need to align well with more sustainable diets, and we will need to perceive the two issues as connected.
Some retailers have successfully introduced labels to communicate various kinds of “ethical” references, not only to respond to consumer demands, but also to distinguish the supply based on corporate social responsibility and various levels of “caring”. However, this is just the beginning.
We need accurate methods to measure a food product’s carbon footprint, as it is important to find ways to reduce the influence of our diet on environmental erosion of resources. Healthy eating and a healthy planet go hand in hand. For example, a reduction of meat products in our diet may be the best way to improve healthy eating and reduce resource intensity.
The impact of eating “local” food needs to be measured against the demands of production as well as the impact of warehousing and transportation. What is the impact of processing on the environmental footprint of foods? On the other hand, however, what is the effect of minimal processing on food waste and decreased shelf life? Those questions need to be answered using accurate methodologies.
Today around a third of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the food sector, but these numbers will need to be continuously re-evaluated as new technological solutions will become available to offset some of today’s shortcomings.
Food consumption plays a crucial role in the issue of sustainability, and we, the consumers, play a pivotal role. Recent estimates suggest that food losses and waste amount to about 25 % of the food produced globally for human consumption.
Food waste can be at various stages of the food chain, in production (in the field), post-harvest (during storage) or during processing. In industrialized countries, however, food waste generation is highest at the distribution and consumption stage. Warehousing and transportation requires additional shelf life for a food product, and a continuous control of storage conditions. Any breakdown of the supply chain before reaching the shelf will result in food waste. Finally, volume discounters have created a culture of selling more for less, and this needs to be re-evaluated.
Decreasing food waste will require using leftover food as well as “less ideal” food, but consumers are not sufficiently knowledgeable about food safety issues. Purchasing smaller sizes is a solution to discourage overconsumption, but this measure will also lead in unhealthy overconsumption. Healthy eating recommendations call for increased consumption of fruit and vegetables, but these are perishable, seasonal crops with a high ratio of losses in production and storage.
Even though today there are major drivers based on altruistic concerns, consumers will always be driven by self-centered motives to rationalize our choice. For this reason, putting hand in hand our personal health and environmental sustainability may be our opportunity in the next decade.
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Please share yout thoughts in the comments section below
- Do you find it hard to make sustainable food choices?
- How do you think we can improve the sustainability of our food system?
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