5. Household behaviour and food consumption

Food systems encompass the activities involved in the production, processing, distribution and consumption of food. These systems face a triple challenge: providing food security to a growing population; improving environmental sustainability; and providing for farmers and those whose livelihoods depend on the food supply chain (OECD, 2021[1]). The growing importance of the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors is signalled by their contribution to the global economy, which increased from USD 0.9 trillion in 1970 to USD 3.6 trillion in 2020 (World Bank and OECD, 2022[2]). Growth in both population and per capita income are expected to increase global demand for food by 1.4% per year over the next decade (OECD/FAO, 2022[3]). To satisfy projected demand by 2050, total calories from agricultural production must increase by 35% to 56% compared to 2010 (van Dijk et al., 2021[4]). Food security faces further challenges from a potential scarcity of arable land and water, and a growing demand for under-priced and resource-intensive food products, such as meat and dairy (Godfray et al., 2018[5]). The pressures that food systems face from changes in demand are exacerbated by environmental degradation, competing land uses and climate change.

Farmed land occupies about 40% of Earth’s terrestrial surface and accounts for around 70% of global freshwater use (Poore and Nemecek, 2018[6]; Foley et al., 2011[7]; IPCC, 2019[8]). Food systems emit around one third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs), while agriculture alone accounts for 17% (FAO, 2021[9]; Poore and Nemecek, 2018[6]; Crippa et al., 2021[10]; IPCC, 2019[8]). Livestock production accounts for 32% of total emissions from agriculture, while cultivation accounts for 37% and land-use change 31%. In addition to contributing to climate change by releasing large amounts of stored carbon from vegetation and soils, conversion of forest to farmland also drives global biodiversity loss (Searchinger et al., 2018[11]).

Intensifying agriculture can increase yields and thereby reduce demand for cultivated land. However, the high levels of fertiliser and pesticides required by intensive food production can enter the environment at levels that often exceed environmental standards, posing a risk to ecosystem health and biodiversity (Pimentel and Burgess, 2014[12]). Lifecycle analyses estimate that pollution from food systems, mostly from the use of nitrogen fertiliser, is responsible for 32% of terrestrial acidification (i.e. deposition of sulphur or nitrogen in the soil causing changes in its chemical properties) and 78% of eutrophication (a similar process in freshwater bodies) (OECD, 2018[13]). In the long run, these externalities could threaten productive food systems, which depend on well-functioning ecosystems.

All food production systems are dependent upon, but also impact, the environment to a greater or lesser extent. As global food demand increases, there is a commensurate need for targeted policy action to increase both the sustainability and efficiency of food production systems in order to minimise their overall environmental impact. Supply-side measures, such as environmental standards, can play an important role in driving production changes that reduce the negative environmental impacts of food production (IPCC, 2022[14]). For example, beef sourced from the dairy sector results in emissions 60% lower than those from dedicated beef herds (Poore and Nemecek, 2018[6]).

Protein derived from any farmed animal, however, affects the environment far more than the nutritionally equivalent plant protein, regardless of production method. Based on GHG emissions, eutrophication and acidification, plant-based protein sources (beans, peas, nuts and tofu) have the lowest average environmental impact. Even when comparing the least impactful producers of animal protein, emissions from meat, dairy, aquaculture and eggs still exceed the average emissions from plant-based proteins (Poore and Nemecek, 2018[6]). Taken together, animal products use 83% of farmland and contribute 56-58% of emissions from food while providing only 37% of protein and 18% of calories produced globally (Poore and Nemecek, 2018[6]).

A shift to organic food production can mitigate the impacts of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides on ecosystem health, biodiversity loss and fossil fuel use and support long-term soil health through crop rotation and inter-cropping practices. However, organic farming requires more land than intensive farming and GHG emissions are similar across both production methods (Clark and Tilman, 2017[15]). Food miles do not necessarily determine a product’s net environmental impact, especially for animal products, as some studies show that importing vegetables from regions in which they are in season results in far fewer emissions than producing them locally during winter months (Hospido et al., 2009[16]). Evidence for the environmental impact of ultra-processed foods is limited. However, many of these food products contain palm and soy oils, which have substantial negative effects on the environment and biodiversity (Seferidi et al., 2020[17]).

Measures that succeed in shifting diets away from resource-intensive products can deliver environmental benefits beyond those that can be achieved by improving production methods alone (Poore and Nemecek, 2018[6]; OECD, 2021[1]). This is especially true in developed countries where demand for animal protein is high. The mitigation potential of a shift to plant-based diets is estimated at 0.7–8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2eq) per year by 2050.1 Dietary shifts could also reduce agricultural land use by 3.1 billion hectares, which in turn reduces land degradation and desertification (IPCC, 2019[8]; IPCC, 2022[14]). More environmentally friendly diets also deliver significant co-benefits for public health and food security (Searchinger et al., 2018[11]; IPCC, 2019[8]). Estimates suggest that a switch to diets with fewer animal-sourced foods could reduce global mortality by 6-10% (Springmann et al., 2016[18]). Plant-based alternatives and lab-grown meat can be produced in less resource-intensive ways with a considerably smaller carbon footprint than conventionally-raised meat (Frezal, Nenert and Gay, 2022[19]; Treich, 2021[20]). Existing public health policies, such as food labelling, that have proven successful in shifting consumption choices can offer a valuable basis for policy design (Giner and Brooks, 2019[21]; Temme et al., 2020[22]).

This chapter gives an overview of the data gathered in the third round of the OECD Survey on Environmental Policy and Individual Behaviour Change (EPIC) on a variety of household decisions related to food systems.2 It explores in particular households’:

  • dietary habits and willingness to try lab-grown meat

  • food priorities and shopping habits

  • purchases of seasonal, locally sourced and organic food

  • changes in food consumption behaviour following the COVID-19 pandemic

  • support for food system policies.

For each of these areas, the chapter uses representative country samples to analyse differences in respondents’ behaviours and attitudes across relevant variables such as income level, residence type and location, ownership status and level of environmental concern.

The survey shows that dairy products are consumed the most frequently (Figure ‎5.1), with an average of 69% of households eating them several times a week (ranging from 60% in Belgium to 76% in Sweden). On average, 65% of households report eating meat at least once per week (ranging from 56% in Switzerland and the Netherlands to 76% in the United States). Of these, 41% of households eat red meat once a week (ranging from 36% in Sweden to 48% in Canada), and 24% eat it several times a week (ranging from 18% in the Netherlands and 34% in the United States). Consumption of white meat is more frequent but also more variable across countries (from 23% in Switzerland to 47% in the United Kingdom reporting eating it several times a week), while seafood is generally consumed less frequently and with even greater variability (from 3% in Switzerland to 15% in the United Kingdom eating it more than once a week). Interestingly, across all countries, those reporting lower consumption of red or white meat also report consuming less dairy.

All countries indicate a consistent association between higher incomes and the consumption of dairy products, red meat, seafood and white meat. The correlation appears strongest for red meat and seafood. Those in the upper income quintiles report eating meat more frequently than those in the lower income quintiles: 29% of respondents in higher-income households report eating meat several times a week, compared to 20% of respondents in lower-income households. Similarly, 15% of those in lower-income households report never eating red meat compared to 8% in higher-income households. In the United States, where consumption of red meat is relatively high, there is a smaller difference between lower and upper-income households (4 percentage points). Other studies have also found strong positive correlations between income and meat consumption, although a negative correlation has been observed at very high levels of income in some cases (Bonnet et al., 2020[23]).

Red meat consumption appears to be correlated with income to a greater extent than with environmental concern (Figure ‎5.2). Among respondents who are environmentally concerned, a slightly smaller proportion report eating red meat several times a week compared to those less concerned (Figure ‎5.2). The differences range from 3 percentage points in the United States to 12 percentage points in the United Kingdom. On average, 12% of respondents with high environmental concern report never eating red meat, compared to 10% of respondents with low environmental concern. This relatively small difference could point to the fact that other factors, such as animal welfare or personal health, may also be important in determining red meat consumption, or that there is still limited public awareness of the environmental impacts of red meat.

In light of evidence suggesting that red meat consumption is driven more by income than by environmental concern, awareness campaigns and other soft environmental policy instruments could focus on the lower costs and health-related co-benefits of reducing red meat consumption (IPCC, 2019[8]; Willett et al., 2019[24]). Persuasive communication has been shown to successfully reduce red and processed meat consumption (Carfora et al., 2019[25]). A particular target group could be environmentally concerned consumers that are not aware of the environmental impacts of meat production. Labelling schemes and certification programmes can promote better understanding regarding sustainable diets, although existing evidence on the effectiveness of sustainability labels in shifting behaviour is inconclusive (Godfray et al., 2018[5]).

When asked about their willingness to substitute red meat for a lab-grown alternative, 28% of respondents overall indicate a willingness to do so, while 44% indicate that they would not be willing to do so, and the rest report being undecided. Willingness to try lab-grown meat is lowest in France, at 20% of respondents, and highest in Israel, where 41% of respondents report being comfortable in doing so.

Willingness to try lab-grown meat also varies significantly by environmental concern, age and gender (Figure ‎5.3). In all countries, a considerably larger proportion (33%) of those highly concerned about the environment report being willing to try lab-grown meat than those who are less concerned (19%). Generally, younger respondents also exhibit a greater willingness to try it than older respondents (41% versus 16%), with men generally appearing more willing than women. This difference is greatest in the United Kingdom, where 47% of men would be willing to consume lab-grown meat compared to 26% of women. Exceptions are Belgium and Israel, where a similar proportion of men and women report being willing to do so (32% versus 24%). Across income, the differences in willingness to try lab-grown meat are smaller; 27% of respondents from lower income quintiles are willing to try lab-grown meat compared to 31% of respondents from upper income quintiles.

Reservations about possible health impacts are the most frequently cited reason for respondents not being willing to try lab grown meat, with 29% of respondents citing it as a concern. Respondents also cite its presumed inferior taste or nutritional value (13%), high cost (11%), or incompatibility with their culture or values (10%).

These results can be used to identify groups of consumers likely to be most receptive to policies encouraging a shift from food products with high environmental impact to lab-grown or plant-based meat. Reducing reservations about meat alternatives among those with low acceptance could encourage more households to make dietary changes. Supply-side production standards and environmental labelling of meat alternatives will be important measures to increase consumer confidence in new, more sustainable food products such as lab-grown meat (Frezal, Nenert and Gay, 2022[19]).

When purchasing food, respondents generally prioritise affordability, taste, nutrition and freshness (Figure ‎5.4). Although some reordering of priorities can be seen across income and environmental concern, they remain the top four priorities for respondents across categories. This is also the case for other variables, such as presence of children in the household or whether respondents shop at local stores. Environmental considerations generally matter a great deal less to respondents. Other studies have also found that on average, price, taste, nutrition and safety are among the most important values for food consumers, but that priorities differ significantly across consumers and food consumption habits (Lusk and Briggeman, 2009[26]). In June 2022, a surge in consumer prices and falling real wages affected purchasing power in many OECD countries (OECD, 2022[27]); the importance of affordability could be partly driven by the cost-of-living crisis during which the survey was implemented.

Respondents across high-income households give more weight to freshness, taste and healthiness than do lower income households (Figure ‎5.4). Among high-income households, 58% of respondents state that affordability is an important factor to them when purchasing food products compared to 69% of low-income households. However, respondents in all income groups still report that affordability is a higher priority than environmental considerations such as low emissions, organic or local production. Households with children prioritise taste more than those without children. Additionally, households that buy at local bakeries, butchers and fruit and vegetable shops appear to value freshness and health over affordability than those who rarely or never shop at local stores. Older respondents and those who live in rural areas report valuing locally produced food more than younger or urban residents. This finding is true across all income quintiles. Younger respondents and respondents with higher education prioritise organic food and low emissions production to a greater extent than older respondents and those without higher education.

The fact that affordability remains a top priority even for respondents who are highly environmentally concerned suggests that differing priorities among households that shop locally is not driven by environmental concern, but rather by the perceived freshness of the food and the associated health considerations. If this result is found to hold against additional control variables in further analyses, this could indicate that shopping locally affects purchasing priorities (Johe and Bhullar, 2016[28]). If this is the case, measures encouraging households to use local shops more often could be used to instil and leverage environmentally desirable social norms and behaviours (Nyborg et al., 2016[29]).

Research has shown that consumers are generally unaware of the extent to which their choice of food impacts the environment (de Boer, de Witt and Aiking, 2016[30]). This could partly explain the low prioritisation of environmental factors such as emissions, even among the environmentally concerned. A variety of policy measures could help to engage consumers in reducing the environmental impacts of their food purchases. Information can be spread through environmental labels, government guidelines and awareness campaigns. The latter could also draw attention to the co-benefits of choosing sustainable food where they align with consumers’ priorities of eating healthily and getting value for money. Other studies have shown that food is often selected simply through habit, which is difficult to target using information or by appealing to values (Abrahamse, 2020[31]; Campbell-Arvai, Arvai and Kalof, 2014[32]). Behavioural interventions, such as offering vegetarian dishes as the default option in school cafeterias, could be complemented with information and educational campaigns. Supply-side interventions, such as setting and enforcing environmental standards, could provide important support to sustainable food policies by addressing the affordability, availability, nutrition and taste of sustainable options.

The survey asked households how often they eat products that are in season, locally produced and organic, as well as processed foods (Figure ‎5.5). Overall, 56% of households report that they often or always consume locally produced foods, compared to 47% that often or always consume processed snacks and pre-prepared foods. Consumption of organic food is lower, with an average of 20% of households reporting that they often or always consume organic products. The lowest consumption of organic products is in Israel (11% of households), and highest in Switzerland, at 31%.

In most countries, respondents from lower-income households are more likely to report that they never consume organic food (Figure ‎5.6). Belgium and Sweden are exceptions, with no evident association between organic food consumption and income. On average, 26% of households in the upper income quintiles report consuming organic food, compared to 18% of those in the lower income quintiles (Figure ‎5.6). Differences in reported organic food consumption across income quintiles is greatest in Switzerland and the United States. Younger respondents also report more frequent consumption of organic food than older respondents. Across all countries, 28% of those aged 18-34 report frequently doing so, compared to 15% of those 55 and older. Shopping at local stores also appears to be associated with organic food consumption. In total, 33% of those who often shop at local stores report frequently purchasing organic food, compared to 16% of those who do not do so. Finally, environmental concern appears to be strongly associated with purchasing organic food. Overall, 26% of those with high environmental concern report frequently purchasing organic food, compared to 13% of those with lower environmental concern.

As with other types of environmental behaviour, evidence points to an attitude-behaviour gap in organic food purchases (Hughner et al., 2007[33]). The literature shows that while consumers generally hold favourable views of organic food, largely due to its perceived health, taste and food safety benefits, only a small proportion buy organic products. The higher price of organic food has been found to be the main obstacle to purchasing organic food, followed by a lack of availability, and satisfaction with conventional food (Aschemann-Witzel and Zielke, 2017[34]). These points indicate that to support organic food consumption, policies could seek to reduce price differentials between organic and conventional food, provide information on the environmental benefits of organic food and the reasons why it can be more expensive to produce than conventional food, and correct misperceptions regarding its actual affordability. The price difference between conventional and organic food could be reduced by revising agricultural subsidies and environmental regulations (Aschemann-Witzel and Zielke, 2017[34]).

In the survey, younger respondents and those with children in the household more commonly report eating processed food, a result that may in part be due to convenience. Across countries, there appears to be no clear relationship between income and the consumption of processed food, but respondents living in rural areas report consuming it less often. Eating food ‘in season’ is more common among respondents over the age of 55, and this also varies according to where the food is bought – in all countries, more seasonal food is eaten by households that regularly shop at their local stores (Figure ‎5.7).

More locally produced food is eaten by high-income households and those with high environmental concern (Figure ‎5.8), except in the Netherlands, where there is no apparent association with income and consumption of locally produced food is generally low. Across most countries, there appears to be no association between consuming locally produced or seasonal food and living in an urban or rural area. The exception is the United States, where urban residents purchase locally produced food more frequently than rural residents. Interest in buying locally produced food has increased over the past 20 years and has been found to depend more on norms and attitudes, such as environmental concern, than socio-economic status (Wenzig and Gruchmann, 2018[35]). As with organic food, there is also a common perception among consumers that locally produced food is healthier (Feldmann and Hamm, 2015[36]). As shown in Box ‎5.1, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on some types of food consumption behaviour.

As with all policy, successful implementation ultimately relies upon public support. This is particularly true for policies affecting households’ daily activities. This survey finds general support for nearly all the food systems policy it addresses (Figure ‎5.11). Respondents express highest levels of support for educating school children about sustainable diets (78%), providing incentives for farmers to reduce environmentally harmful agricultural practices (74%), and stricter regulation of pesticide use, industrial animal farming and aquaculture (71%). Support for policies targeting the commercial elements of food systems is lower (57%), and much lower for a tax on meat or seafood (23%). More than one quarter (26%) of respondents strongly disagree with a tax-based policy, but less than 5% of respondents strongly disagree with the remainder of the food systems policies. Concerns about fairness could underpin the general aversion to tax-based measures.

Socio-economic characteristics have little effect on respondents’ support for food systems policies. A tax on meat or seafood is the exception, with support being notably higher among younger respondents and urban residents (35% and 30% respectively) than older age groups and rural residents (13% and 17%, respectively). Stricter regulations on the use of pesticides, incentives for farmers to use more environmentally friendly agricultural practices and education on sustainable diet are supported to a greater extent by older respondents. Households with children express greater support for a tax on meat or seafood than do households without, but support for other food systems-related policies, such as incentives for sustainable farming and stricter regulations on farming, is equal across both groups. Further analysis will be needed to determine whether this arises from differences in other factors such as income or financial precariousness.

Environmental concern and shopping locally correlate with support for all types of policy (Figure ‎5.12), which is surprising considering that environmental concern has little impact on dietary habits and purchasing priorities (Section ‎5.3.1). Those that frequent local food shops express greater support for all measures, and especially a tax on meat or seafood.

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Notes

← 1. The range reflects the mitigation potential of a scenario in which 50% of the global population adopts diets with less than 60g of animal-based protein up to a scenario in which the global adoption adopts a vegetarian diet, not accounting for land-use change (IPCC, 2019[8]).

← 2. See Annex B on the design and implementation of the EPIC survey and on the quality of the panel of respondents.

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