An understanding of psychology could help persuade people to make more sustainable dietary choices – and even steer their preferences, according to Dr Andrew Bodey, analyst at sustainability consultancy Best Foot Forward.
As we become more aware of the environmental impacts of livestock production, many consumers are choosing to cut the quantity of meat in our diets – or are looking for more sustainably, ethically produced meat. Estimates of the proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock vary from 10% to 51%, with the most commonly cited figure being the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 18%.
But there are still barriers to mainstream acceptance of alternative protein sources; most Europeans would still choose a steak dinner over a plate of stir-fried locusts, which have been hailed as a particularly environmentally friendly and nutritious alternative.
“I think that food choices are cultural,” said Bodey, explaining that whether you consider locusts or horse meat to be disgusting or delicious very much depends on where you come from.
“Food choices are learned. Cognitive behavioural therapy is used with people who are trying to lose weight or change diets, and I think some of those principles could be applied in a broader way.”
Like facing a phobia, he suggests that people might also be able to overcome disgust by becoming gradually habituated to it.
“Some people consider insects to be dirty and not appetizing…There are millions of people around the world who do not have those beliefs. These ideas can be changed.
“A really good starting point for insects would be to present them in a way in which they don’t look like insects. This is what we do with pig genitals and parts of offal; we put them into a sausage.”
Bodey says that prawns are an interesting example – they are not cheap, and are widely considered tasty.
“They are basically locusts that live in the sea,” he said.
Instead of hiding insects in patties and croquettes, another approach could be to appeal to consumers’ aspirations, rebranding them with clever packaging and even celebrity endorsements. Insects are already sold at some top restaurants, so the groundwork is in place.
“Celebrity chefs in the past have got behind sustainability,” said Bodey. “…If they get behind eating insects or more sustainable meat, or eating less meat, that could be very powerful.”
However, although he says that change from our current consumption habits is inevitable, Bodey acknowledges that it is likely to be gradual.It may happen on the same kind of time scale that a company might go from introducing a soft drink to becoming a market leader – years, or even decades.
“We are facing real problems as a planet and need to reduce our environmental impacts, but people aren’t sufficiently motivated by these negative messages” he said. “…If you can change the language of sustainability to be about positive actions, that’s a useful step.”