Consider the humble potato in my shopping basket. A whopping 45 percent of its energy demand throughout its life cycle (until the point when I eat it) comes from the journey to my house and from how I cook it when I get there. So unless eating local means digging up veggies from my back garden or living next to a farm, I’m not counting on it to reduce my carbon footprint.

—Natasha Loder

We constitute the only known case where atoms of matter have been so reconfigured that they can consider and examine what is necessary for them to do in order to maintain their own existence. Nowhere is this more significant that when we contemplate what and how much we eat. Such contemplation suggests that eating behavior does not normally respond to internal cues, such as physiological mechanisms involved in the regulation of body weight. Eating is a social phenomenon and when we decide what to eat we are responding to external cues regardless of any biological signals. Environmental cues are prime movers and people eat in direct relation to how much they are served, the variety of foods offered and the number and social relationships of people with whom they eat.Changing our eating habits is not a scientific endevour but rather a thought process that at its highest expressions gave us poetry, love, kindness, heroism and generosity.

From the point of view of reducing humankind’s ecological footprint it makes sense to campaign to motivate individuals to vary their actions within their normal habits like travelling and keeping warm, rather than by asking people to adopt radical new forms of behaviour or organise themselves in sustainability communities. The models are the British government's radio and poster campaigns, such as 'dig for victory' and 'cooking on the home front', which promoted changes in domestic behaviour during the Second World War. The latter worked because personal habits are simply things that an individual does frequently until they become cemented into his or her behaviour patterns. In this connection there can be no doubt that the biggest environmental impact common to everyone is the result of personal eating habits. Week by week, food-shoppers make important environmental choices because food production accounts for roughly a quarter of a Westerner’s climate-impacting emissions. According to the European Commission, the food and drink sector contributes about 23% of global resource use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 31% of acidifying emission. By comparison, changing to low energy light bulbs would reduce the UK's carbon footprint by only about 0.2%.

'Eating for sustainability' is being promoted actively by the government of Sweden. The PB&J Campaign is a similar effort of private citizens concerned about the environment. The detrimental environmental effects of meat production has become a strong argument in favour of the reduction or abandonment of the consumption of meat, most notably for vegetarianism. Individual commitment is being increasingly supported by local initiatives, such as the meat-free days of the Belgian city of Ghent which imposes vegetarian only food in public canteens for civil servants and elected concillors, soon in all schools, and promotes vegetarian eating options in town through the distribution of "veggie street maps".

The potential for behavioural change affecting this sector of consumerism is high because at some time or other most people have considered changing what they eat. A recent survey showed that 97% of Australians indicated that they had at some time attempted to eat differently. The extent to which participants reported having succeeded is presented in Figure 1. Only 2 per cent of respondents did not make the intended change. For 22 per cent of participants trying to change their eating habits, the change lasted no longer than a few weeks or months before they lapsed back into old habits, and 39 per cent reported that, although they generally feel they have made the change, they do not always stick to it. Nevertheless, 26 per cent of participants had maintained the change for longer than six months and 12 per cent of participants, who reported having changed their eating habits in the last six months, were maintaining the change.

Fig 1 Level of success reported by participants following an attempt to change in eating habits

(1,289 people; 751 females, 129 males, and 409 who did not specify their gender)

external image dietchange.jpg
external image dietchange.jpg

A common motivation of the participants was not concern about climate change but with real or perceived health issues. Participants were asked to state whether they currently have a problem with their health, weight, or level of fitness. Of those classified as obese 89% generally acknowledged their weight difficulties, whereas only just over half (53%) of the overweight group reported having a weight problem, and 17 per cent of those in the ‘normal' weight range reported that they had a weight problem. The lack of a firm health motivation towards dietary change in three of the groups points to a substantial flexibility of eating habits that might be tapped in a campaign to promote ‘eating for sustainability’. Here the limiting factors to be addressed seem to be those surrounding the lack of ‘sticking power’.

"Eating for sustainability” remains poorly understood by both public health professionals and primary producers. The aim of this website is to assemble a body of scientific knowledge within a cultural framework to link the theme of sustainability with nutrition, eating habits, and food production.

Why do we eat?
...Eating for energy
...Eating for ethics
...Eating for faith
...Eating for health
...Eating for others
...Eating for sustainability
...Eating for weight
What do we eat?
Food hubs