Shifting Diets, Measuring Results
As we push further into the 21st century and the world’s human population increases, there is more talk about an impending “food gap” – the difference between “crop calories available” and the “expected calorie demand.” By current estimates, the global food gap will be 70% by 2050, driven primarily by population growth and shifting diets. As the global population continues to consolidate in cities and become wealthier, people are tending to eat more resource-intensive foods such as meat and dairy (the “global middle class” is expected to number about 3 billion people by 2030). Food systems are undergoing rapid technological changes, but the food gap looms nonetheless. The advances generally lead to large, multinational businesses “increasingly influencing what is grown and what people eat.” This convergence of trends and market forces suggests that we are heading toward a food landscape dominated by “Western-style diets, which are high in calories, protein, and animal-based foods.”
This study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) begins by acknowledging that simply increasing food production is not humanity’s best or only option. We must also be cognizant of the pressure that we exert on natural ecosystems due to agricultural activity. Any long-term food gap solutions need to address both production and consumption; in this report, the authors examined “shifting the diets of populations who consume high amounts of calories, protein, and animal-based foods.” Specifically, the authors looked at the three ways the diet can be shifted: first, by reducing overconsumption of calories; second, by reducing overconsumption of protein and limiting consumption of “animal-based foods”; and third, specifically reducing the consumption of cows (“beef”), which is one of the most ecologically inefficient foods that people consume.
To help accomplish these changes, the WRI proposes a new framework that is “based on proven private sector marketing tactics” known as the “Shift Wheel.” They note that the development of the Shift Wheel has been informed by shifts in consumption that were already “successfully orchestrated” in different parts of the world, such as the shift “from caged to free-range eggs in the United Kingdom, from higher-to-lower-alcohol beer in the United Kingdom, and away from shark fins in China.” According to the authors, this is accomplished through four complimentary strategies:
- “Minimizing Disruption” – Since changing food habits is something that usually requires consumers to change deeply ingrained behaviour, care has to be taken to minimize the shock. This can be done by mimicking the taste, look, and packaging of a product that you are seeking to replace, or even having it in the same location in a store.
- “Selling A Compelling Benefit” – This means finding out the aspects of a dietary shift that might be most attractive to a consumer (whether it is ethical, financial, health-related, or something else).
- “Maximizing Social Awareness” – This strategy involves the repeated exposure to the product, whether through actually consuming it, or just being reminded it exists and is available. This is something especially important for the plethora of new vegan products that seem to be coming out faster than we can keep track of them.
- “Evolve Social Norms” – Similar to the third strategy, this one revolves around informing and educating consumers about the various benefits of different kinds of food alternatives. This is as much a process of making the food “socially desirable” as it is about being informative.
The report is extensive and it will be worth the time for many advocates to read the full version available from the WRI website. For farmed animal advocates, the “Shift Wheel” concept and its related strategies may not only help address the forthcoming food gap but may also help speed up the shift away from animal products and toward plant-based diets. It’s clear that something needs to change because global agriculture in 2050, as described by this report, will continue to slaughter animals by the billions while falling far short of adequately feeding the human population.