With this case study, we would like to illustrate how a reasearch team approached a concrete sustainability transformation and what results they produced.
Which transformation? – Healthy and sustainable diets
This project investigates how a transition to a healthy and more sustainable diet could be encouraged and how social resistance hindering such a transition can be addressed and mitigated.
Goals of the research project
The NRP 69 project aims at understanding the development of dietary practices and provides incentives for a transition toward healthy and sustainable nutrition in Switzerland by examining the following four components:
- Find out what diets are currently prescribed as healthy and sustainable and gain a better understanding of nutrition trends
- Analyse how these diets evolve as social practices from the perspective of eating habits, social dynamics and material aspects of consumption
- Study the impact of these diets on health and environment by adopting a novel life-cycle approach
- Explore opportunities and barriers associated with a transition to healthy and sustainable diets and identify tipping points for the adoption of dietary change
The research team was composed of members from the universities of Lausanne and Geneva, EPFL and Quantis, a company specialising in life cycle assessments. The researchers used specific methods for operationalising the research questions: Life cycle analysis was used to quantify both the health and environment impacts of various diets identified by menuCH, the first Swiss nutrition survey. Interviews and group discussions with consumers, interviews with experts, and a general public survey allowed identifying key factors influencing eating habits and implementation of dietary recommendation.
Transformation and transformative research
This research is situated at the intersection of transformation research and transformative research: On the one hand it produces knowledge about the factors influencing a transition towards more healthy and sustainable diets, which is a key element of transformation research. On the other hand, the research is transformative as it brings together arguments for ‘healthy nutrition’ and the arguments for ‘sustainable nutrition’ and identifies possible and encouraging ways for changing practices.
Varied recommendations with an emphasis on health
The findings show that existing recommendations mainly promote health but have less concern for environment-related effects. Data also illustrate that the large variety of overlapping and contradicting prescriptions have the potential to confuse consumers (see the most important dietary prescriptions in Switzerland grouped in seven categories in the graph below).
Effects on health and environment
Different diets have different effects on health and the environment. Compared with diets based on meat, vegetarian and vegan diets result in lower CO2 emissions – but all diets should be less dependent on fossil fuels for production and transports. For meat-based diets, the imported animal fodder from countries with high percentage of deforestation is a key issue.
Negative effects on health mainly result from overconsumption of processed meat and sodium and a lack of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Time constraints and social dynamics influence our eating habits
Findings emphasizes the importance of time and mobility when it comes to the implementation of the recommendations. Rhythms of daily life such as commuting, but also different life stages (living alone, having kids, etc.) influence diets and the implementation of recommendations.
Recommendations for facilitating healthy and sustainable diets
Based on the key findings, the project team makes three key recommendations for policy makers and consumers.
- First, it suggests the establishment of a Swiss Food Policy Forum to connect various sectors of the food system. This emerged through discussions with various stakeholders and the recognition that food is a transversal topic, touching on agriculture, mobility, health, etc.
- Second, nutrition policies should be guided by social practices and account for the complexity of everyday life, its rhythms, and life events.
- Third, it is considered more effective to frame recommendations positively, for example by encouraging people to eat healthy and environmentally sound products instead of banning less healthy and less sustainable foods. Diets are also in transition, and moving to more healthy and sustainable diets is often a progressive process, towards more grains and vegetables, and less meat, for example.
Sahakian, Ernstoff and Godin (2019), Food prescriptions, practices and impacts: towards environmentally sustainable and healthy diets in Switzerland, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), NRP69.