Policymakers need to change their narratives on the food transition

Policymakers need to change their narratives on the food transition

A transition in mind, not in action

Meat consumption per capita has not decreased for several years and we are far from a path consistent with our environmental goals of reducing the share of animal products in our consumption (Rogissart, 2023), even if their impact on the climate are increasingly being made public. Organic remains a niche market (6% of purchases) and the issue of animal welfare has not become a real purchasing criterion. The attraction for locals has not changed the large mass of food consumption and distribution channels (61% of purchases are made in supermarkets). In addition, the dietary recommendations are not sufficiently implemented by the French, especially in terms of increasing the consumption of fiber and fruit and vegetables, and reducing the consumption of cured meats and, to a lesser extent, meat (excluding poultry) ( Santé Publique France, 2019). Social inequalities related to food (e.g. obesity, fruit and vegetable consumption, organic food consumption, etc.) persist, while situations of food insecurity are increasing (Brocard & Saujot, 2023).

Dietary habits are therefore not progressing, or only insufficiently, in the direction of sustainability that combines environmental goals and human health, while opinion polls seem to show the opposite. For example, there is a gap between what citizens say about their reduction in meat consumption and their desire to further reduce it, or between their identification as “flexitarians” and the reality of meat consumption (Rogissart, 2023); that some call a “gap between consumers and citizens“i.e. a gap between citizens’ expectations of their food and their consumption patterns (de Bakker and Dagevos, 2012)

The dominant narrative of responsible consumers is not working

To understand how we get out of this situation, we need to go back to the dominant narrative of the past 20 years. We can summarize it as follows: the growing concerns of a part of the population, transmitted and disseminated through the media and opinion polls, should be amplified in the general population and gradually merge into tendencies that are still a minority in terms of eating habits represented they are willing to pay more for food, consume less but better meat, more organic, short circuit, etc.) and call on the actors of the agri-food industry to change their offer. The figure of the ‘Consom’actor’ sums up this vision: through their individual decisions, supported by the authorities (information, labels, etc.), the engaged and responsible consumer would make the transition a reality.

However, this story is based on an oversimplified view of society and lifestyle changes.

  • Relying on the automatic translation of concerns into actions ignores the rigidity of the food environmenti.e. the physical, economic, sociocultural and cognitive conditions that influence our eating habits and against which public policies have been insufficient (Brocard & Saujot, 2023).
  • Imagining the spread of this “engaged” consumption in a society viewed as unified ignores the implications of segmentation or differentiation between social groups (Dubuisson-Quellier and Gojard, 2016). Perceived as militant, this form of consumption is “closely linked to a social group in which most do not necessarily identify”, which automatically limits its dissemination (Dubuisson-Quellier, 2018, conclusion).
  • The driving logic, through the action of a consumer “referee”, private actors on offer (Dubuisson-Quellier, 2016, Chapter 5) underestimates the asymmetries of power, information (diversity and complexity of labels) and influence (resources devoted to marketing) within food systems (SAPEA, 2020) and indeed often goes to the detriment of the consumer.

The theoretical limits of this story are stretched in reality to tangible causes of consumer citizen frustration. Trapped in conflicting dispositions and charged with the responsibility of driving the transition in a society where the dietary environment (see diagram below) remains unchanged, consumers either face the practical difficulty of aligning their actions with their beliefs (and particularly the most disabled citizen), or the discrepancy between the development of one’s own behavior and the inertia of society (“I change, but nothing changes”). Furthermore, this mismatch between expectations of food as perceived by agricultural sectors and the reality of consumer practices can also lead to resentment among these stakeholders towards a consumer responsible for the necessary transition (e.g. quality labels, promotion of groceries) does not want to pay for animal welfare and the environment when shopping). All of these frustrations are highly counterproductive to the transition.

Does the responsible consumer narrative ignore this?gap between consumers and citizens”? No, but because of the simplistic view on which this story is sometimes based, this discrepancy tends to be reduced to some form of irrationality or behavioral bias that would only need to be remedied at the individual level through information, persuasion, or “nudges.” for example (Bergeron et al., 2018; De Bakker & Dagevos, 2012).

Changing the transition narrative: from individual responsibility to public responsibility

Our interpretation of this discrepancy is quite different: it is rather the consequence of a significant lack of collective action commensurate with the challenges, i.e. public policies and private strategies, allowing to respond to the three identified boundaries: i) the food environment the determines our consumption, in particular ii) the socio-cultural representations of food; and iii) the offer available and made. However, the responsible consumer strategy does not really mobilize this type of public intervention, and not at the right intensity.

It is therefore time to change strategy: the transition requires much stronger action on the food environment and the actions that the authorities could take in this direction are very legitimate in the sense that they are carried out in the name of the necessary preservation of our ecosystems and act on our health. The authorities must assume their responsibilities and bring about changes that, as we have seen, not only respond to the concerns that are currently being expressed by part of society, but above all respond to the challenges. Actions in the food environment are indeed likely to be ‘broader’, ie also affecting social categories far removed from these concerns. Similarly, public action of this magnitude would tend to curb the phenomenon of a two-speed diet, in which certain sections of the population have access to “engaged” sustainable food while others are denied it. Furthermore, actions in the food environment are not about imposing new eating habits, but on the contrary influencing the intermediaries (industry, retailers) to empower consumers and facilitate the adoption of sustainable and healthy food practices. It is therefore about fundamentally changing the discourse on the nutritional transition and the strategy with which it is implemented.

Presentation of proposals for action in the food environment resulting from the study “Environment, inequalities, health: what strategy for French food policy?”. (Brocard & Saujot, 2023).
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