Food systems

UN Action Track 2: Sustainable consumption patterns

Food systems are facing important challenges, including in terms of environmental sustainability, as discussed in Making Better Policies for Food Systems. Addressing these challenges will require designing a coherent mix of policies. Changes in consumption patterns, as suggested in Action Track 2 of the UN Food Systems Summit, could be one powerful element of this mix. 

Several approaches exist to achieve more sustainable consumption patterns, such as reducing the overconsumption of food, encouraging more sustainable diets, reducing food waste, and limiting the growth in “non-food” demand for agricultural commodities. Consumption patterns can also be interpreted more broadly to include the use of inputs such as fuel, fertilisers or pesticides by the food system, and there are many opportunities to eliminate policies which encourage their over-use.

In many countries, both developed and developing, a significant share of the population consumes more calories than the medical evidence suggests is healthy, leading to problems related to overweight and obesity. Bringing these consumption patterns in line with dietary recommendations would limit the growth in food demand and thus reduce pressures on the environment.  

For many countries, healthier diets as defined by national dietary guidelines would mean a reduction in meat and dairy consumption (although in lower income countries, healthier diets may often imply an increase in consumption of these foods). A reduction in meat and dairy consumption would likely have positive environmental effects, including lower GHG emissions. Healthier diets would typically also involve higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and reduced consumption of sugar and of vegetable oils that are high in trans fats. Not all of these changes are unambiguously positive for the environment: for example, greater production of fruits and vegetables may increase pressures on water resources. Moreover, changes in consumption patterns could also change agricultural prices, which affect income for producers – an example of the complex synergies and trade-offs in food systems

A shift to more sustainable diets can also be encouraged by increasing transparency and traceability along the food chain to allow customers to identify and buy more sustainably produced food. Advances in digital technologies may help in this regard. These technologies can complement existing environmental labelling schemes

A significant share of total food production is never consumed at all, but is lost or wasted. In developed countries, a significant amount of waste can occur in the retail and food service parts of the food system, as well as at consumer level. Reducing losses and waste could improve food availability without having to expand production. Sources of waste include cooking loss and spoilage due to inadequate storage after purchase, plate waste from meals consumed in restaurants or in the home, and restaurants over-ordering so that they can maintain a diverse menu. Yet, while reducing food waste may save money, it will probably require effort by consumers, such as learning how to prepare meals from leftover food, and more carefully planning meals. Initiatives to raise awareness and to create behaviour change may be useful. At the same time, because better meal planning requires extra effort by consumers, behavioural change may not be straightforward. 

Another way to shift to more sustainable consumption patterns is to limit the growth in “non-food” demand for agricultural commodities. Over the past two decades, the main source of growth in this demand has come from the expansion of biofuels, stimulated in many countries by biofuels policies which mandated a minimum level of biofuels to be blended with conventional transport fuels. Bioenergy from non-food agricultural and other land use sources are expected to be an important component of global efforts to combat climate change. However, policies that encourage the use of food or animal feed products as feedstocks for biofuels should be avoided in the absence of clear evidence of their effect on net GHG emissions. 

As these examples show, there are several policy levers to improve the sustainability of consumption patterns. But such demand-side approaches work best when they are seen as complementing (rather than substituting for) supply-side approaches. One drawback of a demand-side approach is that these may be hard to target. For example, if consumers are encouraged to reduce beef or dairy consumption, they may not distinguish between products with higher carbon footprints and those from lower-impact production systems. This would also not create incentives for producers to invest in more sustainable production approaches. Other policy instruments such as carbon pricing or methods to create traceability and transparency along supply chains could thus be considered together with policies to change consumption habits. 

Taking a broader view, food systems also “consume” inputs with negative environmental footprints, such as fuel, fertilisers, and pesticides. In many countries, current policies encourage the over-use of these inputs, and better policies could thus greatly improve sustainability. For example, in many countries fertilisers, pesticides and fossil fuels used in agriculture are subject to lower tax rates, while some countries still subsidise water, energy or fertilisers use significantly. Support policies for fisheries, too, often involve lowering the cost of fuel, which stimulates overfishing. Other work by the OECD has identified a range of opportunities for improving energy efficiency in the food system.  

A wide range of OECD data and analysis can inform the design of policies to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns.