A new study published by National Geographic has found that while the world’s collective diet is getting better, we’re still not eating sustainably enough. Further, the study found that certain countries, including the U.S., are downright resistant to change.
The study notes that cultural influences play a large role. For instance, “majorities of consumers in all countries surveyed, except Sweden, feel that food is an essential part of their culture … almost half of all consumers say they prefer to eat the food and recipes they grew up with, rather than the latest trends in food.” Unsurprisingly, the French are the most attached to their food culture.
Nations’ respective cultural ties to food, however, can be roadblocks to sustainable eating. In American culture, for instance, the culture of convenience food and our long history of livestock production are working against us when it comes to cutting back on meat consumption and avoiding overly processed, packaged food.
British, German, Australian, American, and Canadian consumers were among the most stubborn consumers. National Geographic’s report notes that consumers in these countries “showed little interest in changing their consumption habits to diminish their environmental footprints — even though theirs were among the biggest.”
The most stubborn country surveyed was Japan, however. The report notes that last week, the nation announced that it will resume whale hunting, and that currently half of the populations admits to eating pork several times a week. “There’s something going on in Japan — talk about entrenched,” said Susan Frazier, a research manager at the National Geographic Society (NGS).
Meanwhile, the report notes that, “Indians stand out as displaying the most sustainable food consumption habits due to their avoidance of meat, and their above-average sense that the food system needs to change.” Indians also saw food as a large part of their culture, but unlike many Western nations, India’s traditional foodways already carry a relatively small footprint.
Other countries that showed high potential for change and real concern regarding the food system included Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and China. These consumers (a population totaling 1.8 billion people), “all have a keen appetite and a great potential for change,” National Geographic notes.
It seems, then that there is an interesting trend happening worldwide in which developed countries are more resistant and less willing to change their eating habits for the betterment of the world and the environment than developing ones are. Nicole Darnall, a researcher at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, says that this is because “the developing world is more nimble” and “less entrenched” than we are, noting that, “Developed country consumers are more likely to say they have not and will not change.”
The study did find that worldwide, there were some groups that universally seemed more open to change than other demographics. “Women, younger consumers, people with higher education and more income, those who live in urban areas, and those who have household responsibilities (i.e. primary shoppers and parents) have more potential to change,” the report noted.
So if consumers in the developed world are among the most stubborn to change, how then can they be influenced to take into account their environmental impact when making food-buying decisions? Can they be influenced at all?
Nicole Darnall notes that part of the problem lies in legislation. “We haven’t seen broad, sweeping laws that would radically change how consumers interact with food … We subsidize traditional food production in a way we don’t subsidize natural and organic foods.” But legislation isn’t the only issue. The study also found that, overall, consumers in developed countries often feel distanced from their food system, and often, powerless to change it.
There are some rays of hope in all the obstacles to better sustainability. The National Geographic study notes that for Americans, the largest drivers for change include the influence and encouragement of their peers as well as education and awareness about the negative effects of an unsustainable diet on the environment — factors which seem to suggest that a little education could go a long way in the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that by far the largest obstacle for change in the U.S. is the nation’s entrenched culture of bad food habits and long-standing preference for packaged foods and meat, which make switching to more sustainable and less meat-heavy choices more difficult, even if consumers understand the problem with such preferences.
Fortunately, the study found that over a third of Americans fall into what National Geographic terms the “moveable masses,” a category which implies that while these consumers currently have a heavy environmental footprint, they are also motivated to change. “For this segment, unsustainable habits and lack of concern are themselves the main obstacle to adapting more environmentally friendly habits and attitudes.”
So what are some ways to make your diet more sustainable? Well, a good first step in the direction of a more sustainable (not to mention healthier, and perhaps even cheaper) diet is to consider adopting Meatless Mondays in your home. As for Tuesday-Friday? Consider moving outside of your comfort zone and cooking up some slightly more sustainable meat options, such as rabbit or goat meat. Even if you decide to opt out of more exotic meats, or find local carriers of such meats too expensive, avoid beef — it’s the most energy-intensive meat to produce. Still got a craving for red meat? Try bison: they’re native to North America, better adapted to the landscape here, and are still largely raised on grass rather than grain. Happy eating!