Sustainability. Sustainable diets. Sustainable food systems. We hear and use these terms frequently in discussions about food and policies relating to food, but outside of academia, what does ‘sustainability’ mean to us on a day-to-day basis?
In a Rapid Evidence Assessment¹ recently published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), we found that academics, industry, non-governmental organisations and citizens have very different understandings of the meaning of sustainability within the food system. Academic definitions of sustainability are constantly evolving, and tend to place an emphasis on the interactions between economy, environment, society and human health. Industry and NGOs tend to focus on the narrower range of sustainability topics that they can act upon, such as food waste, carbon footprint, recycling, environment/environmentally friendly, energy, packaging, plastic, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions.
For everyday consumers, the picture is more complex. People tend to have a mixed understanding of food sustainability, and issues that are prominent in the media are sometimes given inflated importance. Citizens associate sustainability with terms such as ‘local’, ‘organic’, ‘animal welfare’, ‘meat and dairy consumption/reduction’, ‘plant based alternatives’, ‘food waste’, ‘packaging’ and ‘health’. These terms are sometimes inaccurately conflated, such as when organic production is equated with local food.
While they are aware that the food system has impacts on the environment, citizens may not understand the impacts of specific dietary behaviours. The FSA study found that even when citizens may intend to be environmentally sustainable, the contents of their shopping baskets tell a different story. Affordability, taste and healthiness – rather than the environment – are what people prioritise. In other words, people perceive fruit and vegetables, organic food, ethical foods, and low carbon foods to be high cost, and may choose not to buy and consume sustainable food because it is seen as too difficult or too time-consuming to prepare. Demographically, citizens who are young, female and have high education levels are more predisposed to adopt sustainable food practices than others.
So what can be done to drive more sustainable food choices? Our Rapid Evidence Assessment concludes that if health, taste and convenience attributes can all be aligned with sustainability, these could be used to promote or nudge citizens into sustainable food practices. The FSA can play a critical role in protecting public health and advancing UK food sustainability:
- The FSA is well-placed to conduct and commission primary research that could improve the quality and transparency of sustainability claims and create a working definition of sustainability in food and food systems for the UK.
- The FSA could also provide expertise and evidence which would help to shape policies on healthy and sustainable foods.
- The FSA can support the development of assessing the sustainability of meat, dairy and wine production, and incorporating this assessment into labelling, standards, and wider citizen communication.
- The FSA has the potential to bring together parties across government, academia, civil society and businesses, who can ensure that the UK food system provides citizens with food that is safe, is what it says it is, and is healthier and more sustainable.
 A Rapid Evidence Assessment is defined by the Department for International Development as an assessment that “provide(s) a more structured and rigorous search and quality assessment of the evidence than a literature review but are not as exhaustive as a systematic review. They can be used to: gain an overview of the density and quality of evidence on a particular issues; support programming decisions by providing evidence on key topics (and) support the commissioning of further research by identifying evidence gaps.”