This commentary provides perspectives on advances over the last decade and future directions for research. Over the last 10 years, research on the topic of food consumption patterns and environmental impacts has progressed in various ways: it now not only looks at a range of environmental issues, it also looks at the behavioural and institutional aspects of food consumption.
Research has broadened and deepened over the last 10 years
Over the last decade, much research has been undertaken on the relation between food choices (with a focus on animal products), health, agriculture and the environment. Recent research has shown that from a global perspective, dietary changes alone are not enough to keep the environmental impacts of the food system within planetary boundaries. Reducing food waste and losses and improvements in crop and livestock production methods are needed as well. Research has also shown that in high- and middle-income regions, there are combined health and environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption. Findings also show that neither from a health, nor from an environmental perspective, meat is ‘good’ or ‘bad’: it is the quantity, type and production method that matters. For example, a certain amount of meat can be produced using non-competing feed sources, such as semi-natural grasslands and by-products. Diets containing animal products produced using non-competing feed sources require less cropland than strictly vegan diets.
Food consumption is largely driven by the food environment
Recent research has also looked into the question of how consumption patterns can actually transition towards healthy and sustainable food choices. Findings indicate that food consumption is only to some extent a personal choice. Choices are to a large extent driven by the food environment, for example by the way products are offered in shops or restaurants, by marketing campaigns and by discounts. Changing the food environment and making the ‘healthy and sustainable choice’ the ‘easy choice’, is an important route to change consumption patterns. Supermarkets and restaurants can therefore have a large influence on shifting dietary choices towards healthier and more sustainable choices.
Future scientific research on food consumption and environmental effects could amongst others look into on the consumption side. More work is needed on better understanding the role of the food environment and social practices, as well as the position and activities of actors such as retailers, food service and restaurants. Also more attention is needed to accurately monitor food consumption, which is essential to better track progress and understand food consumption changes.
This Commentary was written for a virtual Special Issue celebrating 30 years of the journal Global Environmental Change. The 2014 paper Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe's meat and dairy intake was one of the selected papers.