Opinion: a radical approach to food sustainability is required to manage the complex set of challenges faced by individuals and society

By Mary McCarthy, Clare O’Neill and Shadi Hashem, UCC

One could argue that the food industry’s success in meeting every need of the market is an Achilles heel of environmental and health sustainability. Increasing efficiencies in the production and supply of food has created a highly competitive marketplace where food is almost omnipresent in our lives. Quantity, quality and value, the mantra of supply, has led to overconsumption and waste. This in turn has propelled us towards a critical point, where we now need to critically reflect on our practices and identify a path for food production and consumption that place us on a more sustainable footing.

Our foods are designed to make life more enjoyable by maximising the eating experience, minimising required personal effort and ensuring value for money. Any combination of attributes is possible, spanning from raw ingredients to foods that offer combinations such as indulgent/healthy convenience. Aligned to these developments is a public discourse drawing attention to the negative consequences of our new food landscape. This has created a sense of anxiety around personal and environmental health at a global level resulting in policy makers facing the dilemma of balancing economic needs with the needs of society. Thus far, no effective solution has emerged.

The current unsustainable consumption behaviours are a product of a market system that has failed society. A food system that produces many energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods has encouraged hedonic consumption, where too much of the "wrong" food is purchased and consumed and this has inevitably led to expanding waistlines. Overweight and obesity levels have doubled in the last two decades, with six in 10 adults and one in four children now overweight or obese. This overconsumption represents a form of waste not calculated in food waste stats which indicate an upward trajectory with an estimated 1 million tonnes of food wasted every year in Ireland which amounts to €400 - €1,000 per household per year.

The solutions to address this health challenge have centred on individual behavioural change, product redesign and public health programmes

Paradoxically, in some cases, nutrition advice has created some negative outcomes. For example, the advice to avoid saturated fats resulted in the market offering a range of low fat alternatives and individuals being proactive in avoiding fat. Cutting rim fat from meat and removing some intramuscular fat when preparing meals has increased at-home waste. In the case of low fat processed foods such as yogurt, added sugar to maintain a positive eating experience has potential negative health consequences. Ironically, we now live in a society where food security sits uncomfortably alongside food excess. Diverting this excess in creative ways to those experiencing food insecurity would have multiple benefits for society.

Over the last few decades, we have witnessed a range of solutions emerge to address this health challenge. These have centred on individual behavioural change, product redesign and public health programmes. In the main, we have witnessed a strong emphasis on approaches that involve individual behavioural change (downstream solutions). For example, consumers are asked to eat less of certain foods, eat a particular combination, cook in a particular way and avoid certain food categories. This requires personal effort and many can find it challenging to self-regulate in a food-rich "obesegenic" environment. Once established, habits are difficult to break once established.

On an industry level, initial solutions commanded a market premium as they represented a market opportunity. More recently, in a proactive response to suggestions of more onerous regulation and a more ingredient conscious consumer, products reformulation has been initiated. This has resulted in products with improved nutritional profiles being consumed, sometimes without any consumer awareness. In other words, no behavioural change was necessary, a convenient solution to a health challenge.  

There is an immediacy to resolving these problems not previously witnessed

Public health professionals have drawn attention to "upstream" solutions that require greater environment and food industry regulation. In addition to supporting specific targeted initiatives, such as school food programmes, their activities include lobbying for greater regulation on where food outlets are located, how food is produced and marketed, portion size and information provisioning. We have witnessed a similar pattern of activity around sustainability, although at an accelerated pace and with a greater emphasis on regulatory solutions. 

We face a complex set of challenges as we navigate our way as individuals and a society through these problems. As consumers, we seek convenient solutions that fit within our everyday practices, while also alleviating anxieties around our future heath and that of the environment. However, there is an immediacy to resolving these problems not previously witnessed, "we cannot ignore this any longer" is the message we heard at recent public rallies on climate change. This involves all of us at every level in society. We may not have the luxury of what some would argue has been an unsuccessful softer approach taken in addressing the obesity epidemic to date.

With policy changes and ongoing innovative supply chain solutions come responsibilities

Due to a change in public discourse around food and sustainability, the speed at which consumer acceptance of new food sustainability systems may occur much quicker now than previously. However, are we truly ready for a more radical approach. Are we ready for being told that our ways of "doing" food are inappropriate or undesirable? How would we respond to suggestions that we will have to pay more based on a food’s "carbon footprint"? How would we react to a potential reduction in our choice of foods, a form of rationing?

With policy changes and ongoing innovative supply chain solutions come responsibilities. Policy-makers need to make bold, brave decisions on environmental sustainability and invest accordingly to ensure they will stand the test of time for generations to come. We, as citizens, should accept nothing less.

Professor Mary McCarthy is Professor of Marketing in the area of consumer behaviour at Cork University Business School at UCC. Dr Claire O’Neill is a Lecturer in Marketing in the area of sustainable marketing and consumption at Cork University Business School at UCC. Dr Shadi Hashem is a Post-doctoral researcher in the area of food sustainability at Cork University Business School at UCC.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ