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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy


Sustainable food consumption: an overview of contemporary

issues and policies
1 2 3
Lucia Reisch , Ulrike Eberle , & Sylvia Lorek
Copenhagen Business School, Porcelaenshaven 18a, 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark (email:
CORSUS, Nernstweg 32-34, 22765 Hamburg, Germany (email:
Sustainable Europe Research Institute, Schwimmbadstrasse 2e, Overath 51491 Germany (email:

Contemporary food production and consumption cannot be regarded as sustainable and raises problems with its wide
scope involving diverse actors. Moreover, in the face of demographic change and a growing global population, sus-
tainability problems arising from food systems will likely become more serious in the future. For example, agricultural
production must deal with the impacts of climate change, increasingly challenging land-use conflicts, and rising health
and social costs on both individual and societal levels. The unsustainability of current arrangements arises from the
industrialization and globalization of agriculture and food processing, the shift of consumption patterns toward more
dietary animal protein, the emergence of modern food styles that entail heavily processed products, the growing gap
on a global scale between rich and poor, and the paradoxical lack of food security amid an abundance of food. These
factors are attributable to national and international policies and regulations, as well as to prevalent business prac-
tices and, in particular, consumers values and habits. The most effective ways for affluent societies to reduce the
environmental impact of their diets are to reduce consumption of meat and dairy products (especially beef), to favor
organic fruits and vegetables, and to avoid goods that have been transported by air on both individual and institu-
tional levels (e.g., public procurement, public catering). In examining the unsustainability of the current food system
this article reviews the pertinent literature to derive a working definition of sustainable food consumption, outlines the
major issues and impacts of current food-consumption practices, and discusses various policy interventions, including
information-based instruments, market-based initiatives, direct regulations, and nudges. It concludes with a call for
integrative, cross-sectoral, and population-wide policies that address the full range of drivers of unsustainable food
production and consumption.

KEYWORDS: food selection, food processing, food consumption, environmental impact, public policy, public health

Sustainable Food Consumption: Where Do We and waterthe so-called energy-food-water nexus

Stand Today? (Bazilian et al. 2011)which will compromise the
sustainable use of natural resources and could ex-
Food consumption is a major issue in the politics acerbate social and geopolitical tensions.
of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) Approximately 800 million people globally suffer
because of its impact on the environment, individual from hunger and underconsumption of food, and a
and public health, social cohesion, and the economy. lack of access to safe and sufficient drinking water
Several key concerns currently high on policy agen- remains a pressing issue (Coff et al. 2008;
das worldwide clearly illustrate how far-reaching the Millstone & Lang, 2008). At the same time, 1 to
problem is: 1.5 billion people are overweight and 300 to 500
million of them obese, an increasing tendency in
Serious environmental problems related to food most regions due primarily to dietary shifts toward
production and consumption include climate more sugar, animal protein, and trans fats.
change, water pollution, water scarcity, soil degra- Diet- and lifestyle-related health problems such as
dation, eutrophication of water bodies, and loss of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are appearing
habitats and biodiversity. Food consumption is as- in young age groups (CEC, 2007), significantly in-
sociated with the bulk of global water use and is re- creasing health costs (BCO, 2007), while social
sponsible for the generation of approximately one- cohesion is increasingly in danger because health is
fifth of greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs). so closely related to socioeconomic status.
Population growth and rising economic prosperity
are expected to increase demand for energy, food,

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Reisch et al.: Sustainable Food Consumption

Given demographic changes and the growing related, and economic impactsas well as their inter-
global population, these problems are only expected linkages. For each impact dimension, we provide an
to worsen in the future. Yet, although the relevance overview of the main policy and research issues, key
of the food dimension for sustainability policies is theoretical approaches, major empirical studies, and
now widely accepted, efforts are largely lacking to- key available data. To encompass all driving forces
ward an integrated policy of sustainable development and barriers, the study examines the main challenges
that covers all actors in the food sector (Reisch, on both the production and consumption sides.
2006). Except for the challenges of food security and The second part of the article identifies priority
agricultural production, political action plans and areas and corresponding policy options for SCP strat-
programs barely touch upon interdependencies along egies for the food sector and concludes with recom-
the food chain and the complexities of modern global mendations for the diverse actors in the overall sys-
food systems. This lack of attention to more systemic tem. The primary aim is to set the stage for the other
issuesand hence the lack of political will for contributions comprising this special issue that dig
changesmay be one reason why food-consumption deeper into the respective issues. 1 We thus undertake
patterns show barely any shift toward sustainability. more an exercise in scoping and sounding than an
At the same time, despite considerable progress attempt to fully cover, analyze, and reflect on the
in the development of sustainability targets and indi- fields many dimensions. Moreover, although the
cators worldwide, there is as yet no commonly agreed discussion aims to reflect global trends related to
upon definition of sustainable food consumption. sustainable food, the main geographical focus of both
Perhaps the most encompassing attempt is that intro- the empirical data and the policies presented is the
duced by the UK Sustainable Development Commis- European Union (EU). 2
sion (2005; 2009), defining sustainable food and
drink as that which is safe, healthy, and nutritious The Food System: The Interlinkages Between
for consumers in shops, restaurants, schools, hospi- Production and Consumption
tals, and so forth; can meet the needs of the less well
off at a global scale; provides a viable livelihood for Major Impacts and Trends on the Production
farmers, processors, and retailers whose employees Side
enjoy a safe and hygienic working environment; re- Contemporary food production is becoming ever
spects biophysical and environmental limits in its more globalized and industrialized, and products are
production and processing while reducing energy subject to increasing standardization. Seasonal vari-
consumption and improving the wider environment; eties are now available nearly all year round and
respects the highest standards of animal health and available food products come from all over the world
welfare compatible with the production of affordable (Oosterveer & Sonnenfeld, 2012). In industrialized
food for all sectors of society; and supports rural countries, agriculture in particular is being intensified
economies and the diversity of rural culture, in par- and yields per hectare have been steadily climbing
ticular by emphasizing local products that minimize over the last several decades. This growing produc-
food miles. Other researchers have also pointed out tivity is a consequence not only of rationalization and
that sustainable food styles must fit into peoples specialization but also of improvements in plant
everyday lifestyles (i.e., must be feasible, available, breeding with and without the use of genetically
affordable, and accessible) and should allow for soci- modified (GM) seeds. Such developments, although
ocultural diversity (Eberle et al. 2006). Policies for expected to continue, also come with untoward side-
sustainable food consumption, therefore, should learn effects that include further concentration of agricul-
from and build on evidence from effective consumer tural industries and decrease in the number (and
policies (Reisch, 2004).
The breadth of this approach clearly illustrates
the scope of the issues to be analyzed by researchers, 1
This article builds on three discussion papers prepared for the
discussed by societal stakeholders, and finally dealt Policy Meets Research workshops on sustainable food con-
with by policy makers. This article takes a step to- sumption within the CORPUS consortium (see http://www.scp-
ward such an analysis by drawing on an extensive held at the Lebensministerium in Vienna in
literature review to outline the major issues in the 2010/11. Also drafted for these workshops and available on the
CORPUS website are the so-called knowledge units, highly
current system of food production and consumption condensed policy briefs offering succinct overviews on such topics
and by discussing their impact on sustainable devel- as a definition of sustainable food consumption, hot spots of
opment. Specifically, using an integrative approach sustainable food consumption, sustainable food systems, food
to sustainable food consumption and following the waste, food and GHG emissions, and obesity as sustainable con-
sumption issues.
definitions provided above, the first part of this arti- 2
Unless otherwise noted, European Union and EU refers to
cle lays out the ecological, social, ethical, health- the group of EU-27 member states.

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Reisch et al.: Sustainable Food Consumption

growth in the average size) of small farms (the so- from midmarket retailing (Oosterveer & Sonnenfeld,
called farm crisis). 2012).
Instead of purveying their output in local mar- In 2010, the size of the market for organic food
kets, farmers today are more likely to sell to large, in Europe was 19.6 billion (US$26.5 billion), with
complex supply chains of which they are normally the largest single country being Germany, which had
only a tiny part. As a result, only one fourth of the a turnover of 6 billion [US$8.1 billion], followed
retail food price goes to the farmers, compared to by France (3.4 billion [US$4.6 billion]) and the UK
approximately 50% a half century ago (Tischner & (2 billion [US$2.7 billion]) (Willer & Kilcher,
Kjaernes, 2007). The loss of the local market to an 2012). For European consumers, the most important
industrial food system also means increasing food reason for buying organic food is the belief that it is
miles, the transport distances between farmers, in- healthier (Willer & Kilcher, 2012) and there is appar-
dustry, and consumers and this trend carries both ently little difference among European countries in
cultural and environmental costs (Blay-Palmer, motivation for organic food consumption (Thgersen,
2008). 2009; 2010). It is likely, therefore, that the barriers to
Within the EU, food and drink is the second purchasing organic produce stem more from the
largest industry, employing some 4.8 million people structural characteristics of the living environment,
in more than 310,000 companies and achieving a that is, the access, availability, and affordability of
2011 manufacturing turnover of 917 billion (US$1.2 the supply.
trillion). 3 The food industry, however, is highly frag- Regarding the different process qualities of food
mented. Despite the small number of large global items, two more trendsoverwhelmingly perceived
players selling a huge variety of products worldwide, as risks by European consumershave emerged
99% of all companies are SMEs. 4 In fact, available during the last decade. The first is the application of
data indicate that, in terms of overall numbers, the nanotechnologies, particularly nanoparticles, to a
European food industry is dominated by enterprises number of consumer products. As a result, food
employing fewer than twenty employees and these products, and especially food packaging, are ex-
entities account for 86% of the industry (EC, 2011). pected to become a growing market that will be sec-
By contrast, food retailing is characterized by ond only to cosmetics and textiles. The same holds
high levels of concentration with fewer and larger true for so-called nano-enhanced dietary supple-
retail chains sharing the market and competing pri- ments. One especially popular category for such sup-
marily on the basis of price. Accordingly, the food plements is intended to help people lose weight and is
sector has witnessed the rise of giant corporations already being sold globally, mainly via the Internet.
that control significant proportions of retail sales, as Nevertheless, the potential contribution of nanotech-
well as the emergence of internationally operated nologies to sustainable food consumptionmainly
retail groups. The size of these retailers ranks them less food waste from smart nano-enhanced packag-
among the largest companies in their home countries ingis estimated to be rather low (Mller et al.
(e.g., the UKs Tesco, Germanys Metro Group, the 2009). Consumers in Europe express concern about
United States Wal Mart). In their role as supply- the application of nanotechnologies in and around
chain bottlenecks, these large retail chains and food items, primarily because of possible health risks
supermarkets wield enormous market power over (Reisch et al. 2011).
both agricultural producers and processors The second trend is the use of GM products in
(Oosterveer & Sonnenfeld, 2012). Currently, how- agriculture, a practice that has been growing steadily
ever, in both American and European food markets, a on a global basis in recent decades. The area around
notable process of bifurcation is taking place between the world planted with GM crops increased from 1.7
more healthful varieties at relatively more expensive million hectares (ha) in 1996 to 148 million ha in
price points and products geared for so-called value 2010, with an increasing proportion grown by devel-
consumers (often processed foods with high fat and oping countries. In 2010, there were 29 so-called
sugar content). Growth rates are higher at both the biotechnology countries comprising 19 developing
upper and lower ends of the market, which is countries and ten industrial countries, with 17 of the
prompting a discernible pattern of migration away 29 growing crops on 50,000 ha or more (James,
2010). This development contravenes the expressed
See desires of the majority of consumers, at least within
_en.htm. EU member states, who do not approve of GM prod-
4 ucts (Gaskell et al. 2010). In Europe, unlike the
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are defined by
EU law (EU recommendation 2003/361) primarily in terms of United States, Canada, or South America, public fear
number of employees (< 250) and either annual turnover ( 50 over safety has been widely voiced and has effec-
million [US$67.5 million]) or balance sheet total ( 43 million
[US$58 million]).
tively halted the commercial production of GM crops

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Reisch et al.: Sustainable Food Consumption

(Millstone & Lang, 2008). The development of these come, education, family type, and labor-force status.
products has also generated global debate, centered Food styles and demand additionally vary greatly
particularly on the risk of releasing modified genetic among EU member states and this diversity has
material into the environment, the environmental prompted researchers to cluster consumers into
impacts of the growing use of pesticides, the control groups representing different nutrition styles or
of technology by monopolistic multinational compa- food styles so that they can be targeted by social
nies, and consumer fears of the unknown risks of marketing with proper food messages (Michaelis &
eating GM products (Pechan & de Vries, 2005; Lorek, 2004; Friedl et al. 2007; Schultz & Stie,
Oosterveer & Sonnenfeld, 2012). 2008).
Nevertheless, in general, the EU allows modified Despite individual, (sub)cultural, and national
seeds and leaves member countries to establish their differences, it is still possible to identify some gen-
own procedures for separating traditional and modi- eral food-consumption trends relevant to sustainable
fied crops, and a small but growing number of Euro- development and already evident in most EU coun-
pean countries, including Spain, Portugal, and Ger- tries (as well as in those nations that are part of the
many, allow a few GM varieties. Nevertheless, ex- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Devel-
cept for Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Czech opment). Probably the most important development
Republic, all EU member states have installed GMO in terms of impact on climate and health (Shindell et
[genetically modified organism]-free zones al. 2012) is the increase in meat consumption (espe-
(Consmller et al. 2012), and in the EU the labeling cially pork and poultry) and fresh dairy products that
of GM food is mandatory for all products made from has taken place over the last few decades (EEA,
or containing GMOs, as well as all GM additives and 2005; OECD & FAO, 2011). Also on an upswing is
GM flavorings. Foodstuffs produced from animals demand for highly processed meals (fast and con-
fed with GM fodder, however, do not fall under this venience food) (RTS Resource Ltd., 2006), a trend
legislation. Hence, Germany and Austria have intro- attributable to the fact that time spent on food pur-
duced free from GMO labels that are applicable to chasing and cooking, as well as on eating, has de-
foodstuffs to which neither GM additives nor GM creased significantly over the past few years
feed have been introduced. (Hamermesh, 2007). Socially, home meals and their
preparation are losing their significance as loci for
Major Impacts and Trends on the Consumption communication and structuring of everyday lives,
Side while convenience products, fast food, and restaurant
In industrialized countries, the range of available meals are gaining in importance. Out-of-home con-
food products is extensive and, because most are af- sumption now accounts for a significant and growing
fordable all year round, the notion of seasonality has proportion of European food intake. For example,
lost its meaning. In addition to an abundant choice of 35% of the Belgian population consumes over 25%
healthy fruits and vegetables all year, consumers in of its daily energy intake outside the home
most EU countries benefit from the comparatively (Vandevijvere et al. 2009), and 27% of participants in
low prices and high convenience that have accompa- a representative Spanish study reported eating out at
nied changes in food production and globalization. least twice a week (Bes-Rastrollo et al. 2010). Such
The downside of this process, however, is that con- varying food habits (e.g., home-made versus ready-
sumers have become increasingly estranged from the to-eat or school-provided lunches) have a clear im-
production of their food and, despite the recent recur- pact on both climate and eutrophication (Saarinen et
rence of regional food and new trends like slow food al. 2012).
and organic produce, consumer knowledge of sea- At the same time, food consumption is increas-
sonality and regional supply has withered (e.g., ingly furnished with symbolic meaning and hedonic
Tischner & Kjaernes, 2007; Blay-Palmer, 2008). experiences, and social food has become ever more
On an individual level, food habits and prefer- significant in combatting the perils of an individual-
ences are shaped by cultural traditions, norms, fash- ized society. Today, food marketing promises solu-
ion, and physiological needs, as well as by personal tions not only to indulgence and prestige problems,
food experience and exposure to the consumption but also to health and fitness concerns (Schrder,
context (i.e., foodstuff availability and accessibility). 2003). Indeed, with respect to both convenience food
Such preferences and tastes, together with finances, and food services, high-quality and health-oriented
time, and other constraints (e.g., work patterns, products and organic foodstuffs have become in-
household decision making) influence food con- creasingly important (Tempelman, 2004). As a result,
sumption. Price, in particular, is a major decision although the market share of organically grown and
criterion, but food preferences also differ signifi- fairly traded food products remains small in absolute
cantly by household characteristics such as age, in- terms, both categories have grown steadily, and even

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remained quite stable during the financial crisis 2008). Likewise, in Germany, 61% of food waste
(Willer & Kilcher, 2012). Well-being and healthy originates from households, two-thirds of which
lifestyles have even become a social and economic could have been avoided or partly avoided (Kranert
megatrend. Nevertheless, overweight conditions and et al. 2012). The reasons for such wastage range from
obesity are spreading worldwide, and the rate of poor menu planning and a general lack of food com-
obese adults has more than doubled over the past petence (i.e., knowledge of food freshness and stora-
twenty years in most EU countries (OECD, 2010b), a bility) to huge package sizes enabled by large home-
trend that is hardly surprising given that the food storage capacities and the attractiveness of quantity
supply in the EU-15 countries is a third more than is discounts at points of purchase.
required for a healthy diet. 5 In many industrialized
countries, this food wealth, combined with increas- Unsustainability of the Current Food System:
ingly sedentary lifestyles and modern diets, is leading Dimensions and Factors
to rising obesity, particularly among children and
teenagers, but also among lower socioeconomic Given escalating rates of obesity and diet-related
groups with low access to fruits and vegetables diseases, excessive food miles, food scares and food
(WHO, 2005). insecurity, the spread of fast food culture, and in-
Concerning food-market transparency, the com- creasing food wasteall of which have conse-
plexity of food choice has increased and the more op- quences for global climate changethe western food
tions and novelties the more troublesome the infor- system is clearly unsustainable (SDC, 2009). To
mation search and the more complex decisions are achieve sustainable food consumption, the problems
for consumers. Although information brokersfrom of both over- and under-consumption must be con-
independent testing institutes to commercial food fronted, together with food-safety issues in affluent
magazines to food activists and Web 2.0 slow food societies and food-security issues in poorer regions.
communitiesmay work to reduce complexity for a This section therefore briefly reviews the environ-
few people, many consumers report being over- mental, health-related, ethical, and economic aspects
whelmed and would rather adhere to their habitual of food consumption and the key challenges that con-
choices (Mick et al. 2004). In fact, the success of stitute contemporary public debate.
food retailers such as Trader Joes, which offers a
very narrow food assortment, results from the attrac- Environmental Aspects
tive mix of little choice (and hence, low search costs) Food consumption is one of the private con-
and the high quality of the organic products that they sumption areas that has the largest impact on the en-
sell at relatively low pricessomething that full-line vironment; among the EU-25 countries approxi-
super- and hypermarkets cannot match. The growing mately one-third of households total environmental
consumer uncertainty in the food sector has been impactincluding energy use, land use, water and
fueled by a decade of food scares, combined with soil pollution, and GHG emissionsis related to
differing expert evaluations of risk, contradictory and food and drink consumption (EEA, 2005). 6 The over-
short-lived nutrition information in the media, pro- all impact and private household space for maneu-
nounced variety of available food products, and glob- vering, however, also depend on the decisions of
alization and distancing of food production other actors in the production chain, whose roles and
(Bergmann, 2002). Hence, the multitude of coexist- responsibilitiesparticularly regarding environmen-
ing food labels, rather than helping consumers navi- tal hot spotsare highlighted below.
gate, has led to consumer confusion and information
overload that prevents quick retrieval of relevant in- Agriculture
formation. As a result, (re)building consumer trust in The main environmental effects from food arise
the food information provided by both the state and in the primary production stage. Agriculture is a ma-
the market is a key challenge (Kjrnes et al. 2007). jor source of such impacts through land usage and
Finally, one-third of food globally is wasted soil degradation, water consumption, eutrophication
(Gustavsson et al. 2011), particularly during the retail and water pollution, monocultures that cause biodi-
process and by consumers. For instance, according to versity loss, and introduction of hazardous chemicals
one recent study, British households discard 33% of through synthetic pesticides and mineral fertilizers. In
the food that they buy, 61% of which could have
been eaten if it had been better managed (Ventour,
The EU-25 includes Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the
Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany,
The EU-15 encompasses Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Neth-
France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Neth- erlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain,
erlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

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terms of energy use, agricultural production is re- of all heavy goods vehicle kilometers (DEFRA,
sponsible for about 30% of the food sectors total 2008).
energy demands (Owen et al. 2007), 40% of which
result from the production of chemical fertilizers and Consumers
synthetic pesticides (Heller & Keoleian, 2003). An- The environmental impacts of food consumption
other more indirect cause is the production of cattle in households, restaurants, schools, and other institu-
fodder (Tempelman, 2004), which in terms of pri- tionalized settings result mostly from the handling
mary production accounts for nearly half of the GHG and preparation of food, that is, storage (primarily
emissions from food consumption (Tukker et al. freezing), cooking, and dishwashing. The choice of
2006). Simultaneously, climate change is dramati- diet and food types, however, is also relevant in that,
cally affecting agriculture and will do so increasingly for example, (red) meat and dairy products cause by
(Schaffnit-Chatterjee, 2009). Yet research on the en- far the highest GHG emissions. In fact, within the
vironmental impacts of organic production (e.g., EU-25, meat and meat products contribute to be-
FAO, 2003; Shepherd et al. 2003) shows that, de- tween 9 and 14% of total releases, with the second
pending on the products involved, organic farms use most relevant food products being milk, cheese, and
50 to 70% less energy (direct and indirect) per unit of all types of dairy products (Tukker et al. 2006). Cere-
production than conventional farms, mainly as a re- als, fruits, and vegetables, in contrast, contribute
sult of different fertilizer use. Organic production comparatively low levels of GHG emissions (Dabbert
also has clear benefits for biodiversity on agricultural et al. 2004; Carlsson-Kanyama & Gonzalez, 2009).
land, although lower yields may mean that a larger In terms of storage, cooking, and dishwashing, the
land area is required than under conventional pro- environmental impacts depend in particular on the
duction methods. In milk production, however, the energy efficiency of the relevant household appli-
advantages are less clear, primarily because of the ances (Quack & Rdenauer, 2007). Another factor
higher output of conventional dairy farming and the that effects the environment, one too easily neglected
higher GHG emissions from grass-fed cattle. Never- by consumers, is the means chosen for the last mile
theless, animal treatment is typically better on or- of transport (Reinhardt et al. 2009). That is, the ten-
ganic farms, and cows are less likely to be lame or dency to travel by car to out-of-town supermarkets
stressed or to carry disease (Owen et al. 2007). for food purchases counteracts consumers own in-
terest in environmentally sound grocery shopping, a
Industry typical tragedy of the commons situation where
Because the food industry encompasses all individual and social interests stand in contradiction.
stages of the value chain beyond the farm gate and Finally, at the very end of the food chain, the main
before food purchase and consumption, it includes issue, as previously discussed, is waste and discard-
manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and food- ing of food.
service providers. The activities of this industry can
degrade the environment in numerous ways, includ- Environmental Hot Spots
ing through the generation of air emissions from Although the food-related factors affecting the
grinding grain, bulk-product transfers, and silo vents; environment are manifold, if policies and corporate
the contamination of land from accidental oil spills strategies are to effectively and efficiently make a
and past site use; the creation of noise pollution from difference, they must necessarily concentrate on hot
food-manufacturing equipment, grinding machinery, spots. The academic literature generally agrees upon
and packaging lines; the (over)use of resources such a number of these primary environmental impact
as water, energy, and food-packaging materials; the categories related to food consumption and produc-
disposal of out-of-date products, peelings, animal tion, including GHG emissions, water consumption
byproducts, food packaging, food-manufacturing and pollution, eutrophication, land use and soil deg-
equipment, and effluent-plant sludge; and the dis- radation, and biodiversity loss.
charge of water from effluent plants, accidental spills, One of todays main environmental challenges is
and cooling towers. 7 Within the UK, for instance, the to contain climate change to a maximum of a 2C
food industry accounts for 14% of the energy con- global average (IPCC, 2007). The primary contribu-
sumption by all businesses, seven million tons of tor to such global warming is GHG emissions, caused
carbon emissions per year, about 10% of all industrial in particular by the use of synthetic pesticides and
use of the public water supply, approximately 10% of mineral fertilizers, livestock farming (especially me-
the industrial and commercial waste stream, and 25% thane and nitrous-oxide emissions), transportation,
food packaging and processing, and cooling and
7 cooking. In fact, 45% of all nutrition-related GHG
processing.aspx. emissions derive from food production (agriculture,

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Reisch et al.: Sustainable Food Consumption

processing, and transportation), while the remaining forest, and woodland worldwide has suffered soil
55% are generated by storage, food preparation and degradation (Schaffnit-Chatterjee, 2009).
consumption, and to a minor extent by the transpor- Finally, compared to other sources (e.g., house-
tation of food purchases. Eating out also contributes holds, industries, transport, energy), agriculture also
substantially to GHG emissions (Eberle et al. 2006). has the highest negative impact on biodiversity, most
The seriousness of this issue is clearly demonstrated especially due to biodiversity loss from the use of
by calculations for Germany that food accounts for agrochemicals associated with intensive farming. In
about 16% of GHG emissions, the same share as mo- some places, the replacement of local varieties of
bility (Eberle et al. 2006), and by the fact that the domestic plants with high-yield or exotic alternatives
UKs food production and consumption is responsi- has also broken down important gene pools
ble for about 18% of its GHG emissions (BCO, (Schaffnit-Chatterjee, 2009). Yet, biological diversity
2008). is critical for food security and this awareness has
Agriculture also consumes most of the fresh- prompted the Food and Agriculture Organization of
water used in the world, accounting in some devel- the United Nations (2010) to actively promote the
oping countries for up to 90% of usage. Changes in conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. In
diet place even higher pressure on water resources meeting this goal, organic agriculture has a substan-
(Schaffnit-Chatterjee, 2009). For example, one study tially lower environmental impact than conventional
by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (2009) reveals agriculture (Foster et al. 2006).
that agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of
German water consumption, about 40% consumed in Health Aspects
Germany itself but about 60% imported through
agricultural products from outside the country. Over- Over and Under Nutrition, Health, and Well-
all, the study estimates per capita water consumption Being
of nearly 4,000 liters per day just for food, which Under-nutrition and malnutrition exist to a con-
includes the so-called virtual water consumed dur- siderable degree in both industrialized countries and
ing agricultural or manufacturing production. 8 At the countries in transition. Even in Europe, about 5% of
same time, agriculture is one of the main polluters of the overall population is at risk of malnutrition, and
water bodies, due mainly to the appropriation of ni- among vulnerable groupsthe poor, the elderly, and
trates from the soil and the use of pesticides. In fact, the sickthis percentage is still higher. At the same
experts expect not only a further increase in chemical time, people worldwide face an increase in such
applications but also increasing absolute contamina- food-related health problems as cardiovascular dis-
tion stemming from their long persistence in both soil ease, obesity, and diabetes because of rich foods,
and water (SRU, 2004). Most particularly, agriculture modern diets, sedentary lifestyles, and overeating.
is one of the main sources of water eutrophication, Key diet-related factors are the high intake of satu-
primarily through the use of fertilizers and nitrous- rated fat, salt, and sugar and the low consumption of
oxide emissions from livestock breeding (SRU, fruits and vegetables. It has been estimated that
2002). Agriculture also demands land for crop culti- 70,000 premature deaths in the UK could be avoided
vation and animal management, which requires espe- each year if diets matched national nutritional guide-
cially high land usage, primarily for cattle-feed culti- lines (BCO, 2008). In fact, according to the British
vation. This pattern of land-use activity is expected to Cabinet Office (2007), food-related ill-health costs
multiply exponentially in coming decades to meet the amount to 6 billion (US$9.3 billion) per year (or 9%
growing demand for meat in developing countries of National Health System costs), and malnutrition,
(Tempelman, 2004). Even without such changing mainly in the elderly, costs public services 7.3 bil-
trends in diet, agricultural production will have to be lion (US$11.3 billion) annually. The BCO (2007)
increased in the future to feed a growing global pop- also expects obesity, a risk factor for many serious
ulation. For instance, the World Bank (2007) projects health conditions, to continue increasing and further
that cereal production will need to increase by 50% undermine health and well-being, health-service
and meat production by 85% between 2000 and 2030. costs, state benefits, and the economy. Hence, stem-
At the same time, however, experts estimate that ming obesity, particularly in children, is a major
since the 1950s, about 22% of all cropland, pasture, challenge for sustainable development (WHO, 2008).
In the affluent world, excess weight gain cur-
rently ranks as the third greatest risk factor after
smoking and high blood pressure for all premature
Virtual water is the same as a products water footprint (Hoekstra deaths and disabilities (IASO, 2009). Among chil-
et al. 2011). It includes all water used, contaminated, or evaporated
dren especially, obesity levels have risen in the EU
during the production processthe so called green, blue, and grey
water (WWF, 2009; Hoekstra et al. 2011). during the last three decades to about one-third of the

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Reisch et al.: Sustainable Food Consumption

population (CEC, 2007). By 2050, half of the UKs increasing (DEFRA, 2008). Because food risks are
population is projected to be obese (DEFRA, 2008), socially channeled and mediated, however, there is
leading to an increase in chronic conditions including often a wide gap between perceived health risks and
cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, objective risks (Blay-Palmer, 2008). For instance,
stroke, certain cancers, musculoskeletal disorders, German consumers primarily fear health risks from
and even a range of mental health conditions. Obesity food additives even though, objectively construed,
is most prevalent in lower socioeconomic (SES) the risks from active hormonal substances are much
groups, and particularly in women, which reduces higher. Moreover, although the health risks from the
their access to economic and social life chances use of (broadband) antibiotics in livestock breeding
(DEFRA, 2008). Women in lower SES groups also play only an ancillary role in public awareness, they
seem more vulnerable than men because of different are generating an increasing number of resistances in
environmental pressures in an obesogenic environ- pathogenic organisms, which in turn present serious
ment (Robertson et al. 2007). These women are also risks for human health (Dettenkofer et al. 2004).
more likely to give birth to either under- or over-
weight babies (both risk factors for later obesity), and Ethical Aspects
are less likely to follow recommended breastfeeding At the heart of sustainable consumption lies the
and infant-feeding practices (also linked to obesity idea of ethically responsible food production and
risk). Hence, added to the public health and social consumption. This concept encompasses multiple
care costs are personal costs like the impact on well- aspects, ranging from food and water security to fair
being of morbidity, mortality, discrimination, and trading conditions to species-appropriate livestock
social exclusion (DEFRA, 2008; Reisch & Gwozdz, breeding. The main areas of ethical concern regard-
2010). Nor are such problems confined to the devel- ing food are as follows (Coff et al. 2008). First, the
oped world: with the global spread of western high- supply of food and access to clean drinking water
fat, high-sugar diets, obesity has also become a available to human beings should be just and fair
problem in less affluent countries. Admittedly, at (food security). Second, food should not endanger the
present, adiposity and overweight status in these health of consumers because of pathogens or pollu-
countries remain primarily problems of the upper tion (food safety). Third, ethical issues need to be
classes with access to modern diets (Witkowski, addressed in relation to new developments in nutri-
2007; IASO, 2009). However, as such diets become tional research and technology, particularly func-
more available, the consumption habits of the middle tional foods, nano-enhanced foods, and GM foods, as
classes will follow. well as personalized nutrition. Fourth, observation of
Despite these findings, as Cohen (2005) rightly specific production practices in the food chain af-
notes, scholarship on sustainable consumption, like fecting animal welfare, the environment, and (un)fair
policy making, has only very recently taken up nutri- working conditions has given rise to a demand for
tional excess, a fact that he attributes to the divide ethical traceability of key consumer concerns.
between environmental and nutritional policy. In fact, These ethical considerations have very concrete con-
Lang & Heasman (2004) suggest that the develop- sequences. For instance, meeting the needs of a
ment of a more integrated view is being hampered by growing global population and the increasing demand
an on-going food war between three schools of for meat in developing countries will require sub-
thought: the long-dominant productionist paradigm stantial growth in land usage at a time when most
of food and health politics, a life-science integrated productive cereal areas in North America, India, and
paradigm (i.e., with life sciences having the lead as China will be approaching their biophysical limits
regards topics and priorities), and an ecologically (Tempelman, 2004).
integrated paradigm that also includes the costs for One essential aspect of ethically responsible food
the ecological system. consumption today is fair trade and working condi-
tions. The European market for fairly traded products
Food Safety is growing, with bananas, coffee, orange juice, tea,
Health risks also result from the presence of and chocolate most often sold (FLO, 2006; 2010). All
unwanted substances in food products, including of these products have been marketed in several
pathogenic organisms, toxic substances (e.g., Western European countries since the 1980s and
pesticides and heavy metals), and contaminants. In 1990s (Oosterveer & Sonnenfeld, 2012). At the same
Europe, the most serious food-safety issue is food- time, several non-European countries, including
borne illness from food poisoning and poor hygiene. Australia, the United States, and Canada, have seen
Despite this concern (or perhaps because of it), more notable growth rates of these products, making fair
food allergies have been reported over recent years, trade a global phenomenon. As a result, market
and the number of people with food allergies is still shares have been rising rapidly since the early 2000s,

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with Switzerland and the UK having relatively high households that spend a substantial proportion of
penetration but Japan demonstrating slow uptake to their income on food (Michaelis & Lorek, 2004).
date. Overall, the growth of fair trade sales has been Food from organic production is also more ex-
impressive, reaching well beyond 3 billion (US$3.9 pensive than its conventional equivalents, on average
billion) in 2009and this is in spite of the 2008/09 around 17% more costly in Germany (GfK, 2007),
economic crisis (Oosterveer & Sonnenfeld, 2012). and although the price of seasonal vegetables can be
Interestingly, fairness in trade is not only an issue for comparable, meat and meat products, particularly, are
developing nations. In European countries, farmers more costly. These price differenceswhich result
are also demanding fair payment for their produce. from lower yields, more expensive materials, and
For example, in Germany, some farmers, retailers, more labor-intensive production methodsare even
and dairies have become organized into a cooperative more pronounced in other countries around the
to offer fair milk, whereby the income of farmers is world, ranging from 1050% depending on product,
secured through long-term contracts based on prices season, and retailer. In Europe, a few innovative re-
slightly above the fluctuating market price. tailers are actively working to reduce the price differ-
Another important aspect of consumer awareness ence. For example, the Dutch chain Albert Heijns
is animal welfare, especially in European countries maintains a permanent 535% price reduction on a
such as the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK. This selection of 25 organic food products while Auchan
concern has given rise to the development of differ- in France has set a limit of 25% on the its margins for
ent formats for food labels specifically evaluating fair trade products (UNEP, 2005). One of the leaders
animal welfare in the production process (SAB, in the Danish market, Coop, decided as far back as
2011). For example, the production of eggs by cage- 1993 to fully eliminate the sales-price difference
free hens and the participation of retailers in the between organic milk and conventional milk, thereby
Global Animal Partnership animal-welfare certifica- bringing about an early breakthrough of organic
tion program have been notably visible develop- products in Denmark (Schmidt et al. 2009). The same
ments. chain in Sweden has a specific pricing policy on or-
Also a subject of increasing debate in industry, ganic food: instead of the normal price percentage
civil society, and the political arena is the contribu- mark-up, the same amount is added for organic prod-
tion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) regimes, ucts as for the conventional alternative product.
including those within the food sector (Hartmann, Likewise, Denmarks SuperBrugsen regularly com-
2011). One means of managing ethical workplace bines promotions of sustainable products with dis-
conditions throughout global supply chains is to fol- counts, making it easier for customers to trial these
low international standards, such as Social Account- options (Schmidt et al. 2009). SuperBrugsen and
ability Standard 8000 (SA 8000) or the International KIWI Denmark and Norway also have organic
Standards Organization standard for CSR (ISO weeks or organic months in which all organic
26000). According to a survey of 300 executives products are offered with a price reduction of the full
from retail and consumer-goods companies in 48 value added tax (VAT), which amounts to 25%.
countries, ethical sourcing will also figure promi-
nently as a food (retail) sector issue in the future Policies for Sustainable Food Consumption
(CIESThe Food Business Forum, 2007).
Economic Aspects In terms of sustainability promotion, the food-
The share of total European household expendi- policy domain is quite complex. In addition to the
ture on food has declined steadily with rising in- environmental, ethical, and economic aspects of food
comes, ranging between 10 and 35% of total house- consumption that have regional, national, and global
hold consumption outlays in 2005, with the smallest impacts, public health concerns are an integral factor.
shares in the EU-15 member states and the larger In general, policy makers trying to enhance food-
shares in new member states (EEA, 2005). Compared system sustainability have three major types of in-
to previous years, international food prices are likely struments at their disposal: information-based,
to remain, at higher levels, primarily because of the market-based, and regulatory (Lorek et al. 2008).
escalated cost of inputs. In the EU overall, the price Recently, however, this toolbox has been enlarged
index for food rose by almost 20% between 2005 and with nudging instruments, such as choice architec-
2012 (Eurostat, 2012). 9 Rising food prices create ture, in which the person or organization designing
serious difficulties for vulnerable, low-income the choice can harmonize the default outcome with
the desired outcome (see Thaler & Sunstein, 2008;
Sunstein & Reisch, 2013). Sometimes referred to as
See behaviorally informed social regulation (Sunstein,

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2011), this policy approach has been integrated into applied only in cases that can be left neither to vol-
various political applications, including consumer untary agreements (VAs) nor to the market because
policy (OECD, 2010a). In the food and health area, of the high risks involved or because of time pressure
particularly, nudging consumers toward more sus- and doubts about VA effectiveness. Thus, regulation
tainable or healthier choicesfor example, by mov- concentrates on food-safety issues and aims to protect
ing the soda machines to more distant, less visited consumer health, lives (e.g., through hygiene stand-
parts of a school or locating the salad bar in the mid- ards), and economic interests (e.g., through competi-
dle of the cafeteria where everybody passes byhas tion regulation).
been quite successful (Just & Wansinck, 2009; With regard to food-sector sustainability, gov-
Reisch & Gwozdz, 2013). ernments and their administrations come into play
Ideally, the goal is to build a coherent policy mostly as organizers of (public) certification, stand-
framework for appropriate action and to incentivize, ardization, and inspection, as evidenced by the state-
enable, and empower the actors along the food chain run labeling of organic and regional foods in about
to engage in more sustainable production and con- half of EU countries (Organic Europe, 2011). Such
sumption. Governments can also influence markets labels constitute an important tool for raising con-
and mindsets by stimulating and supporting busi- sumer awareness about the health and environmental
nesses in voluntary self-commitment. Finally, gov- aspects of food and for facilitating informed decision
ernments and public bodies are themselves powerful making (Eberle et al. 2011). Nevertheless, in terms of
role models and market makers that, by choosing changing buying decisions, the effectiveness of la-
sustainable alternatives by default, can help to create beling is limited (Larceneux et al. 2012). The main
critical demand (public procurement). All these ef- impact seems to be on the supply side since such la-
forts should be coherent with other relevant policy bels have proven valuable marketing tools in satu-
initiatives, such as agricultural and consumer policies rated markets.
(Reisch, 2013). To give an overview of current prac- Another relatively recent approach to promoting
tices, the next section summarizes the main policy sustainable food consumption is self-regulation in the
instruments used today in relation to sustainable food form of sustainable public food procurement (or
consumption. guidelines for procurement and catering) in such
public bodies as kindergartens and schools, staff
Policy Instruments: The Scope cafeterias in the public sector, prisons, and hospitals
On the production side, the European agricultural (Wahlen et al. 2012). However, examples from
sector is a highly regulated market in which the reg- various member states, especially the UK and
ulatory and market-based instruments already in Sweden, demonstrate that such self-regulation, even
place are targeted primarily at production. They are, though it requires much time and effort, effectively
therefore, not the major focus of this discussion. improves food quality only when government closely
Nevertheless, certain of these instrumentsfor ex- monitors the initiatives (Dalmeny & Jackson, 2010).
ample, the financial support provided to organic pro- In fact, one recent report concluded unambigiously
ducers via subsidies under the reformed Common that the only way to achieve a radical improvement
Agricultural Policy (CAP)probably create a in public sector foodfor example in our schools,
stronger push for increased availability and afforda- hospitals, and care homesis for government to
bility of organic products than many other instru- introduce a new law which sets high, and rising,
ments discussed in relation to sustainable food con- standards for the food served (Dalmeny & Jackson,
sumption. 2010).
On the demand side, national governments gen- In contrast, market-based instruments targeting
erally play a relatively weak role in managing the households and individuals seem far less prevalent
adverse effects of (over)consumption. The main than regulations in the food domain, despite being
driver to date behind regulatory command and con- applied upstream in the food-supply chain (e.g., sub-
trol instruments in the field of food consumption and sidies to organic farmers). However, several national
production is the need to respond to acute threats to governments recently launched initiatives to tax cer-
the life and health of citizens. Only recently has gov- tain food types (e.g., junk food) or food components
ernmental attention about food intake extended to (e.g., certain fats in Denmark) (Nicholls et al. 2011).
everyday diet and health issues. Nevertheless, these Nevertheless, the dominant policy instruments in the
concerns, although they are slowly resulting in politi- food domain are information-based and education-
cal measures (especially as they relate to obesity and oriented tools that focus on raising awareness and are
its health impacts), are designed mostly for infor- often accompanied by voluntary strategies encour-
mation provision and rarely take the form of overt aging self-commitment, cooperation, and networking.
regulation. Rather, command and control is usually These interventions contradict social trends insofar as

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increased out-of-home and ready-made food con- explicit strategies for sustainable consumption. Not
sumption, and the rise of other priorities in formal only do nutrition and food policies, environmental
school curricula, tend to result in declining education policies, and health and social cohesion policies sel-
in growing, processing, cooking, and storing food. In dom link to one another, but explicit policies for
some places, however, efforts continue to develop sustainable consumption in general and for food con-
food literacy among young consumers with regard sumption in particular are uncommon. Moreover,
to choosing and preparing healthy (e.g., more fruits policy toolboxes tend to be designed one dimension-
and vegetables) and sustainable (e.g., organic, re- ally for specific policy domains, and the policy tools
gional, fair trade) food. For instance, as one element adopted primarily target individual consumers.
of a national food strategy, France has recently Hence, although it has become clear that systemic
started systematically training school childrens sen- changes in the prevailing socio-technico-cultural-
sory and taste competences. Related initiatives in- econo-political system are necessary for a move to-
clude an explosion of interest in school-gardening ward sustainable consumption, the role of societal
initiatives and efforts to reform school-meal pro- innovations is often underestimated (Brown et al.
grams. 2012).
Achieving behavior change in favor of more Most particularly, in the face of the dominant,
sustainable food consumption, however, is a long- highly concentrated, powerful retail industry that
term goal that involves several stages and requires characterizes the European food domain, govern-
the constant efforts of all actors involved. Yet, barri- ments tend to restrict themselves to a marginal role
ers at the institutional, informational, infrastructural, and to noninvasive instruments, such as consumer
and personal levels are pervasive. Nevertheless, with information and education (Mont, 2008). They also
the recent rise of new, alternative agrofood networks, seem reluctant to implement strict national food poli-
small farmers movements, and different forms of cies because of the risk that sustainability goals and
community-supported agriculture (CSA) (Oosterveer policies might conflict with European law. For in-
& Sonnenfeld, 2012), policy makers do have effec- stance, the EU recently asked Sweden to withdraw its
tive tools to ease the availability, affordability, and National Food Administrations (NFA) proposed
accessibility of sustainable food supply, helping to guidelines for climate-friendly food choices because
make the sustainable choice the easy choice. they are in tension with European trade goals. Spe-
Overall, agreeing on a positive definition of what cifically, the EU Commission found that the recom-
constitutes sustainable food choices remains difficult, mendation to eat more locally produced food contra-
a challenge fuelled by inconclusiveness and some- venes the EUs principles for the free movement of
times even contradiction in the scientific evidence. 10 goods. 11
Research and policy do seem to agree on the main Governments also lack vision of the possible
drivers of nonsustainability in the current food do- forms that sustainable food systems might take. An
main. These include, first, the distance between food understanding of the difference between sustainable
consumers and producers (in miles, as well as in food and sustainable diet seems a crucial starting
minds). Second, is the significant loss of biomass point. For instance, an individual can consume very
between the field and the table (including the waste healthy, sustainably produced food but still eat too
generated). Finally, the high consumption of animal much or too little of it. Alternatively, food could
products in the form of meat and dairy products is a come from sustainable farming but still be highly
priority. These three issues constitute the critical as- processed and overly packaged. Hence, a priority for
pects of nonsustainability, which governments should governmental activities is to develop integrative,
address with some urgency. cross-sectoral, population-wide food policies on such
issues as agriculture and food supply, availability and
The Need for Coherent Policy Frameworks access to food, physical activity, welfare and social
Despite growing attention to the food domain on benefits, fiscal policies, animal welfare, and infor-
the policy level, approaches that integrate the differ- mation and social marketing (Robertson et al. 2007).
ent sustainability issues into coherent policy frame- On a global scale, such an integrative paradigm
works or action plansor, at least, into noncontra- would be even more important. Yet, if the differences
dictory policy toolsare rare. The same is true for between Europe and the United States in how to ap-
proach sustainable development are indicative
For instance, recent research has suggested that organic meat
production may give rise to higher GHG emissions than conven-
tional meat production (Kool et al. 2009), while the German ko-
Institut has claimed that apples grown in Germany may have a For a summary of the original proposals, see http://www.
higher carbon footprint than apples imported from New Zealand
(Griehammer & Hochfeld, 2009). choices/article-183349.

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Table 1 Short-term and medium-term requirements for a sustainable food-policy framework.

Timeframe Level of Change Implications for the Food System

Short term
Goals: mostly agreed System optimization through technical Agree on definitions of sustainable foods
Means: fairly clear solutions, involvement of society, and and sustainable diets
Problems: getting all stakeholders moving incentive provision Identify measures to satisfy the criteria for
a sustainable diet
Medium term
Goals: mostly agreed System redesign through experimenting, Consider European self-sufficiency for
Means: unclear testing new ideas in niches, and stimulating most products
Problems: specifying direction and self-organizing capacities Devise strategies for sufficient supply and
identifying means avoidance of food losses
Adopted from Mont (2008)

(Robertson et al. 2011), integrated policies will be taken up by experts in water footprinting, a field that
exponentially more difficult to develop. highlights the degree to which embodied water re-
A review of current European sustainable devel- sources reflect inequitable trade flows (Hoekstra,
opment strategies (SDS) and action plans highlights 2013).
the following major goals for sustainable food con- Given the goals already adopted as part of SDSs
sumption (in order of priority): improving health and and the more extensive objectives that have recently
lowering obesity levels, increasing organic food con- entered the debate, two requirements appear relevant
sumption and production, decreasing GHG emis- for building a framework for sustainable food con-
sions, and reducing food waste. These goals have sumption and production: short-term action on the
been the focus of several major reports in recent agreed problems and medium-term specification of
years (e.g., ECSCAR, 2011; UK Parliament, 2012) how to redesign the food system(s) (see Table 1).
and serve as the starting point for both our analysis of Also needed is a parallel debate on a European food
policy instruments and the search for synergies and model and its common values (e.g., as regards
coherence. Because SDSs are a result of social debate GMOs and nanotechnologies) that includes the pos-
in the various countries, their explicit goals reflect sibility of a green economy strategy for the food
mainstream thinking about the areas in which policy sector.
instruments are appropriate and necessary. At the To this end, we now review existing and desira-
same time, however, they neglect other relevant as- ble policy instruments and suggest a way to combine
pects of food and drink sustainability, including the them to maximize synergies.
social and socioeconomic dimensions on both global
and local levels. As already pointed out, the UKs Analysis of Existing and Required Policy
Sustainable Development Commission (2005) has Instruments
emphasized the need to move beyond reflections on
safe, healthy and nutritious food to include con- Table 2 summarizes the food-policy instruments
sideration of the needs of the less well off; that is, currently in use in EU member states and delineates
policy must take into account decent economic, liv- how different types of tools can work in concert to-
ing, and working conditions for those along the food- ward a single goal (table rows) and how they can be
production chain, including respect for animals and used to support different issues simultaneously (table
support for rural economies and cultural aspects. columns).
Two other issues prominent in recent academic
discussion have not yet received sufficient attention Information-based Instruments
from policy makers: a nations self-sufficiency in On the European level, a significant amount of
terms of food supply and the uneven impacts of food food-related information and disclosure is already
production on soil. These rather complex issues are regulated. Consumers have become accustomed to
made all the more challenging by World Trade Or- packaging that includes best before dates, ingredi-
ganization (WTO) rules and EU policies promoting ents, health claims, origins, organic content, envi-
intercountry trade. Nevertheless, they need to be ad- ronmental details, serving suggestions, and recipes.
dressed in the near future, especially given the docu- Nevertheless, although product-based consumer-
mented adverse effects of policies that increase food information tools are important, they often lead to
transportation from one country to another. As men- overload, an old but frequently ignored insight
tioned above, about 40% of food is wasted in the (Miller, 1956).
food chain (Mont, 2008). These issues have also been

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Table 2 Framework of policy instruments to promote sustainable food systems.

Issues Information-based Market-based Regulatory Self-committing
Health aspects Publicly question Increase VAT on meat Limit advertising and Reduce the number of
current meat and dairy products or fat (fat tax, other forms of stealth meat dishes in public
consumption levels junk-food tax)f marketing for sector cafeterias
Integrate food-related unhealthy food and Increase share of organic
SCP considerations drink and vegetarian food in
into formal curricula public sector cafeterias
Establish voluntary
agreements with retailers
and main industry players
on choice editing
Organic food Develop national Provide subsidies for Simplify distribution of Increase share of organic
organic labels farms during conversion organic products and food in public sector
Highlight and those involved in foodstuffs cafeterias
environmental organic production Introduce green Increase range of organic
consequences of Support marketing of accounts for farmers
a food available in retail
individual food organic products and markets
purchasing choices foodstuffs
Integrate food-related Implement tradable
SCP considerations nitrogen quotas
into formal curricula Place a tax on harmful
Lower VAT for organic
GHG emissions Highlight Tax food products with Develop CAP in a Increase range of regional
environmental high emissions, e.g., more sustainable food available in retail
consequences of higher VAT on meat and direction. markets
individual food- dairy products. Introduce production
purchasing choices, Introduce CO2 taxes. quotas on meat and/or
e.g., via carbon Implement tradable animal products.
labeling or the Nutrient nitrogen quotas
Develop and
Density to Climate Promote organic implement clear
1 1 d
Impact (NDCI) index farming sustainability targets
Promote food-waste
Integrate food-related
SCP considerations
into formal curricula
Food waste Design and carry out Initiate taxes or fees on Critically test existing Increase range of regional
awareness campaigns, food wasted in food-safety standards food available in retail
including school production and in the Eliminate legal barriers markets
programs retail system that can lead to Voluntary agreements on
Introduce pay-as-you- wastage
2 buy one get one for free
throw (PAYT) schemes Develop monitoring campaigns
for households plans to ensure
voluntary agreements
are followed
Mind and Integrate food-related Phase out export Increase range of regional
markets gap SCP considerations subsidies food available in retail
between food into formal curriculad markets
consumption Stimulate retailers to
and production develop sustainable food
See, ISO, 2012; Smedman et al. 2010.
According to a recent report, organic dairy farms produce much lower levels of GHG emissions than conventional farms (Benbrook
et al. 2010). Similar advantageswith the exception of land usehave been found in organic crop farming (Nemecek et al. 2011).
a b
Source: The majority of instruments are based on Lorek et al. 2008. Additions are from Eionet, 2010 ; Tukker et al. 2009 ; Verburg,
c d e f
2010 ; EEA, 2008 ; Danish Ministry of the Environment, 2009 ; & Epstein et al. 2010 .

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A number of practical barriers also exist, such as an additional fat tax on saturated fats in Denmark
the readability and comprehensibility of the product (Ekstrand & Nilsson, 2011; Smeds, 2012). The latter,
information provided. As a rule, consumers tend to for instance, although its outcomes have yet to be
rely on front-of-the-package, easy-to-see, read, and formally evaluated, most clearly affects lower SESs
understand signals, as well as shelf-display infor- that spend relatively more on basic foodstuffs and
mation like unit pricing (see Hersey et al. 2011). tend to buy fattier meat.
However, the secondary effects of such information
tools are often at least as important as the primary Regulatory Instruments
effects of better individual choices. These include One critical step in the pursuit of a sustainable
impacts on social norms (e.g., regarding packaging food policy is for governments to define and enforce
and food waste) and quality standards, which in turn clear national (and supranational) sustainability tar-
steer the industry toward healthier product formulas gets in the food domain, such as a general reduction
and provoke public debate on relevant topics. of GHG emissions or land-usage goals (EEA, 2008).
In politics, awareness campaigns and social mar- Proper implementation and promotion of these tar-
keting activities are promising methods of choice, gets must be ensured through independent monitor-
particularly in combination with other policy tools ing. However, although some EU member states
such as limits on advertising. In industry and retail, (e.g., the UK and Denmark) are spearheading such
labels are increasingly seen as a business opportunity initiatives and devising goals, plans, actions, and pro-
because they allow companies to participate in cesses, others remain only in the early stages of de-
growing organic and fair food markets. For many velopment.
years, attempts have been made to reduce this com- The major framework shaping food supply and
plexity by developing metalabels, for instance, a demand in Europe is the CAP which, as a medium-
combined socioecological sustainability label to term strategy for a sustainable food system, could
cover all relevant aspects (e.g., Teufel et al. 2009; adopt the phasing out of export subsidies for agri-
Eberle et al. 2011). However, as yet no such instru- cultural products and the shifting of those funds to-
ment has emerged. ward SME-scaled production for local and regional
needs (BirdLife International et al. 2009). Such a
Market-based Instruments strategy would strengthen rural economies by ensur-
In terms of market-based instruments, govern- ing a viable livelihood for farmers, processors, retail-
ments apply both carrot and stick approaches, ers, and their employees. At the same time, the nar-
including, respectively, subsidies for healthier food- rowing of the distance between production and con-
stuffs (e.g., reduced VAT for fruits and vegetables) sumptionboth in minds and marketswould help
and taxes and fees on harmful or unsustainable food to reduce not only food miles but also preferences for
and drink. The goal of these latter interventions is to industrially prepared meals over fresh, local food.
create financial incentives that steer market-actor The most important contribution for lowering GHG
behavior. Such financial instruments are potentially emissions, however, would be reduced consumption
powerful tools because, in the food domain, price is a of meat and dairy products, which would require con-
key decision criterion for consumption and hence a sideration of (national) production quotas as an ad-
critical competitive advantage. Hence, taxes serve as ministrative instrument that could, according to pre-
a stronger incentive than subsidies for consumers to liminary estimates, lead to the fastest reduction in
switch to another product alternative and/or to an- GHGs (Weidema et al. 2008).
other form of need fulfillment. Taxes and fees also One possible strategy for providing broader sup-
bring in revenue that the state can use to finance in- port and awareness for organic production among
formation- and education-based policies, for exam- farmers, while retaining control and transparency for
ple, promoting organic food consumption by com- policy and civil society, would be to establish so-
bining an organic label with reduced VAT for or- called green accounts for farmers (Eionet, 2010). 12
ganic products (EEA, 2008). Evaluations of such input-output accounting systems,
Another widely used option is the introduction of developed to facilitate voluntary improvements in
subsidies for farmers who convert to organic prac- farm environmental performance in countries with
tices and/or those currently involved in organic pro- intensive agricultural production, show that, in a
duction. The policies introduced so far, however, broad spectrum of different agricultural operations
have failed to adequately address the necessary re- and enterprises, they often lead to improvement in
duction in animal-product consumption, despite
ranging from taxation of food products with high 12
GHG emissions or significant ecological footprints to In Denmark, green accounts are part of a mandatory environ-
mental reporting system that accounts for the physical flows of
a higher VAT on meat and animal products and even pollutants and resource efficiency.

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Reisch et al.: Sustainable Food Consumption

nutrient and energy efficiency with no extra cost to To induce a shift toward healthier diets and life-
farmers (Halberg et al. 2005). styles, behavioral economics-informed consumer
With respect to food waste, one policy option policy has suggested and applied a toolbox of
would be to eliminate legal barriers and dispropor- nudges that softly and voluntarily shift consumers
tionate food-safety standards that lead to high waste toward better choices (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008;
rates. Hence, food-safety standardsmany intro- OECD, 2010a). Examples include efforts to create a
duced in the context of the mad cow-disease crisis health-supportive infrastructure, sustainable choice
should be thoroughly reviewed (Verburg, 2010). In defaults (e.g., in public dining facilities), and access
particular, the actual meaning of eat-by dates to affordable, healthier alternatives for all income
should be better communicated to consumers to avoid groups (Wahlen et al. 2012; Reisch & Gwozdz,
wasting food, without, of course, compromising their 2013), such as requiring students to pay cash for
lives and health. sweets while presenting healthier options more at-
In addition, given the research evidence on the tractively. Such solutions lead to higher participation
effectiveness of food advertising for fatty, salty, and than simply banning junk food or sugar-sweetened
sugary snacks and drinks (especially among children beverages from school cafeterias (Downs et al. 2009;
and the poorly educated), regulation, particularly Just & Wansink, 2009; Taber et al. 2012).
during childrens programs, should be considered as
a means to limit exposure to such communications. A Final Thought
Although voluntary agreements are one option here
(Forum for Fdevarereklamer, 2008; 2009), national The production of good policy requires both
regulatory bodies should have monitoring and sanc- policy-minded researchers and research-minded
tioning tools in place to ensure that such agreements policy makers (Bogenschneider & Corbett, 2010),
are maintained. which is all the more important in the food domain
where drafting effective policies to foster sustainable
Self-Commitment Instruments, Public food consumption requires an understanding of the
Procurement, and Nudging entire food system and all its interactions and
Today, a growing number of food retailers and dependencies. Its opposite, the tendency to view
producers want to participate in this interesting high- single aspects of sustainability as unrelatedto
margin market for sustainable products, and even dissociate food production from nutritional behavior,
highly price-oriented discount retail markets have economic aspects from social aspects, health aspects
begun active promotional programs for sustainable from environmental aspects, and everyday meal
products (Tukker et al. 2009). Public procurement of planning from other life areas like employment,
organic food has also become an appealing instru- housework, and leisureis responsible for the
ment for increasing sales of organic products in many limited success of many approaches tried so far
(western) European countries, one promoting the idea (Eberle et al. 2006). A first priority, therefore, is to
that the public sector can be a role model as well as develop integrative, cross-sectoral, population-wide
an opportunity for achieving economies of scale policies that address such issues as agriculture and
(Mikkelsen et al. 2006). Such public procurement food supply, availability and access to food, physical
serves a triple function: it supports organic farming, it activity, welfare and social benefits, fiscal policies,
can increase the acceptability of and preferences for and information and marketing, all important
organic food among cafeteria users via frequent ex- elements discussed in this article.
posure and habit formation, and it can help improve
public health. Nevertheless, this distribution channel
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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | Summer 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 2