European Review of Agricultural Economics Vol 00 (00) (2021) pp. 1–29
Shaping healthy and sustainable food
systems with behavioural food policy
Lucia A. Reisch*
Copenhagen Business School, Department of Management, Society and
Communication, Frederiksberg, Denmark;
University of Cambridge, Department of Political Science and
International Studies, El-Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics and
Public Policy, Cambridge, UK
Received May 2021; nal version accepted May 2021
This paper focuses on policies that are enlightened by behavioural insights (BIs), taking
decision-makers’ biases and use of heuristics into account and utilising a people-
centric perspective and full acknowledgement of context dependency. Considering
both the environmental and pandemic crises, it sketches the goal of resilient food
systems and describes the contours of behavioural food policy. Conceptually built
on BIs derived from behavioural economics, consumer research and decision science,
such an approach systematically uses behavioural policies where appropriate and most
cost-effective. BI informed tools (nudges) can be employed as stand-alone instruments
(such as defaults) or used to improve the effectiveness of traditional policy tools.
Keywords: resilient food systems, behavioural insights, consumer behaviour,
behaviour change, demand side policy
Humanity historically has never fared better—but nature has rarely if ever
experienced such rapid decline (UNDP, 2020). The food systems that have
developed worldwide in the past 100 years have brought previously unknown
prosperity, less hunger and greater access to healthier diets in no small part of
humankind. However, at the same time and mainly due to the growing popula-
tion that the Earth must sustain, this positive development led to new scarcities,
overuse of nature’s capital and novel challenges of over- and undernutrition.
Today, it seems that a tipping point has been reached and that the food and
*Corresponding author: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Foundation for the European Review
of Agricultural Economics.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
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2L. A. Reisch
farming systems need a profound change towards being less environmentally
devastating in relation to natural sinks and sources (Otto et al., 2020).
Personal and institutional food choices carry many consequences—for our
health, the environment, the economy and the social fabric of societies. The
United Nations (UN), in partnership with science, activists and business lead-
ers, is currently preparing for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 to take
place in October 2021.1This summit’s overall goal—and more so that of the
movement it is expected to create—is to shift towards healthier and more
sustainable food systems worldwide. This goal presents major and urgent
challenges for policymakers, producers and consumers: How to design and
adapt the existing policy frameworks shaping food systems? How to promote
new foods and better farming and production processes? How to establish
incentives and supportive contexts that move the demand side towards more
sustainable and healthy consumption patterns? Above all, how to enlist the
food system to help rather than endanger the prosperity and fate of the planet
This summit builds on decades of global, national and sectoral initiatives,
high-level scientic advice and grassroots engagement to change the food sys-
tem for the better. Yet, the pressures of the 2020 double crisis—the climate
crisis and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic—have opened
a window of opportunity to propel this agenda forward now. In 2020, sci-
entists’ wake-up calls became more urgent and more frequent. In September
2020, a consortium led by the World Meteorological Organization sent the
message that, despite the pandemic, climate heating is on the rise and that
‘new technological solutions and gradual change in consumption patterns are
needed at all levels. Transformational action can no longer be postponed’
(WMO, 2020). On the same day, the UN’s 2020 Global Biodiversity Out-
look emphasised how vital biodiversity is in addressing climate change and
long-term food security, concluding that protecting biodiversity is essential
to prevent future pandemics. These contemporary voices remind us that busi-
ness as usual is not a viable option any longer. Major changes are needed to
transform as rapidly as possible into a more resilient, sustainable, socially just,
healthy and less wasteful economy and society.
Food systems are widely considered to be a signicant entry point for
change (Garnett, 2016). A sustainable food system has been dened as one
‘that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the eco-
nomic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition
for future generations are not compromised’ (FAO, 2018). A consortium of
the FAO, WHO, UNICEF and others (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, & WHO,
2020) concluded in its recent global assessment report that to achieve sus-
tainable and healthy dietary patterns, large transformative changes in food
systems, on all levels, will be needed. Indeed, the double crisis has made the
food system’s challenges more visible and salient and also has highlighted
respective solutions and policies and made them more acceptable, moving the
1 Disclosure: the author is a member of the leadership team of Action Track 2 of the UN Summit.
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Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 3
‘Overton window’ (Lehman, 2010) towards more radical changes. As regards
the discourse on food-system transitions, the double crisis has taught three
The rst is about the importance of systems thinking and systems sci-
ence and their role in ensuring resilience: natural and social systems that
are solely focused on efciency and have no ‘buffers’ are widely acknowl-
edged to be highly vulnerable to external and internal shocks and disruption.
Diversity, substantial local resources, circular thinking and adequate access
to public goods (including health) and services create needed buffers and
increase system resilience. This critical concept was introduced in the 1970s
by environmental ecosystem research (Holling, 1973). Ecological economics
considers resilience as a condition for sustainability (Common and Perrings,
1992); in agroecosystems research, resilience is often linked to the level of
biodiversity of a system (Di Falco and Chavas, 2008). Since the 1990s, its
meaning has been expanded to include socio-economic-ecological systems
(Berkes, Colding and Folke, 2002). In this broader meaning and application,
resilience has been discovered by businesses and policymakers alike as the
new sibling of sustainability.
The second lesson pertains to preparedness and timing: it pays to invest in
preparedness and to act while active design is still possible, to develop alter-
native pathways, mitigation and adaptation options systematically and, more
generally, to make use of the precautionary principle, before the full force
of a crisis strikes. While the timing of the two current crises looks different
(slow and incremental versus sudden and surprising), both climate change and
COVID-19 have tipping points and profound long-term economic and social
consequences that have not yet shown their full force. Sustainable develop-
ment and climate policies have taken on a long-term perspective, making the
Paris Accord (United Nations, 2015) concrete and supporting Europe’s plans to
become the rst climate-neutral continent by 2050. Major cities (C40 Cities,
Arup & University of Leeds, 2019) and many countries worldwide are set-
ting ambitious climate targets for becoming ‘carbon neutral’ within decades.
Despite people’s initial reactions and impulses to draw back, the COVID-19
pandemic and its economic fallout have thus far not weakened these ambitions
of major private and public actors. A parallel development is the quest to design
self-sufcient ‘COVID cities’ (Bai et al., 2020), i.e. built environments and
urban infrastructures that cater to the need for a new ‘distanced togetherness’,
including innovative urban farming concepts that help secure food provision
independently from global supply chains. Progressive city leaders have started
investing in self-sufcient, healthy and sustainable urban food systems, paired
with micro-mobility and infrastructure for pedestrians, while testing new urban
design models, such as retrotting buildings and public spaces with healthier
renewable alternatives that bring food production closer to city people.
Which brings us to the third lesson, which is about the importance of
the human factor in policymaking aimed at shaping behaviour: without the
acceptance, participation and engagement of consumers and citizens, even the
most promising technological advances and product and process innovations
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4L. A. Reisch
will not be successful. Without empirical knowledge about how, when and
why farmers, innovators, prosumers and consumers actually make decisions,
well-intended policies might not have the desired effects. System changes
in democratic societies (which are the focus of the present paper) need a
human-centred approach that engages people in the changes—that makes use
of their knowledge of the issues and expertise in solving problems, that utilises
the ability to design policies that work given deep-rooted biases and often-
unconscious dependence on heuristics and that acknowledges the power of
social, environmental and situational contexts. To achieve such goals, the tra-
ditional economic model of Homo oeconomicus is not very helpful; instead,
a more realistic, empirically valid model of how humans think, decide, act
and react within powerfully inuential contexts is better suited. However, this
approach is largely lacking today. As a recent IPCC report (2019, p. 114)
observes, ‘incorporating human and institutional behaviour in models’ is a
signicant interdisciplinary science challenge.
This is what the present paper is about: it argues that good food policy, both
in concept and practice, will benet from a systematic inclusion of human and
institutional behaviour in its models, processes, politics and policies. Extend-
ing the recent contribution of Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and Van Bavel (2019)
on the supply side, it focuses on the demand side of food systems.
In the past decade, spurred by the path-breaking work of psychologists
Kahneman and Tversky (1979,1984), and then by economist Richard Thaler
and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, behavioural economics (BE) has had a
massive impact on academia as well as private and public institutions and
governments. Building on the wealth of theoretical and empirical knowledge
accrued in economics and policy research, psychology and sociology, market-
ing and consumer behaviour, BE has been a game changer (Hallsworth and
Kirkman, 2020) and is slowly becoming the ‘new normal’ economic approach
(Thaler, 2016). With its strong empirical focus, integrating the knowledge of
how people decide and behave in reality (and not in abstract models), as well as
its robust connectivity to other social sciences, BE promises to be instrumental
in solving concrete problems. The key argument for BE is rooted in the two-
systems theory of decision-making (Kahneman, 2011) used by behavioural
science: the human mind operates on two ‘systems’—fast and intuitive, and
slow and deliberative (called System 1 and System 2)—that are both useful for
decision-making in different situations. However, they also give rise to deci-
sion errors such as myopic and impulsive choices, mispredictions and wrong
evaluations of current or future states or awed evaluations of past experiences,
to name just a few.
Behavioural factors are commonly understood in the BE literature as psy-
chological and sociological factors, i.e. the cognitive, emotional, personal
and social processes, mechanisms or stimuli underlying human behaviour.
Research is based on behavioural theories such as prospect theory (Kahneman
and Tversky, 1979). However, neither there is unied or dominant theory to
date (see Schl¨
uter et al., 2017) nor is there widely accepted agreement on con-
ceptual issues such as denitions and taxonomies (Beshears and Kosowsky,
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 5
2020). Many proposals have been made on how to categorise these behavioural
factors. For instance, a recent literature review on farmer behaviour suggests
grouping behavioural factors into three categories: dispositional factors (such
as personality, resistance to change, risk tolerance and environmental con-
cern), social factors (relevant when interacting with others, e.g. social norms
and signalling motives) and cognitive factors (such as knowledge, perceived
control and risk, perceived costs and benets) (ibid.). Such conceptual ground-
work is relevant since tackling the different behavioural factors needs distinct
More than a decade after the policy term behavioural insights (BIs)2was
coined, interest and efforts have expanded rapidly to harness the insights
of behavioural science (usually understood as the three overlapping elds
of cognitive psychology, social psychology and BE) to induce change and
make policy measures more effective. This has spurred the development of
Behavioural Public Policy (Shar, 2013), applied by hundreds of govern-
ments and public institutions worldwide, as well as what has been called
‘Nudge Theory’ for private organisations and corporations. Today, major
supranational organisations such as the FAO, the WHO, the Organisation
for Economic Development (OECD) and the United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) have explicitly adopted such an empirical view of eco-
nomic actors as ‘humans not econs’ (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) to create
more effective programmes and policies (Manning et al., 2020). A carefully
designed choice architecture (i.e. the context and background that inevitably
must be established) and well-chosen and well-designed nudges, i.e. seem-
ingly small, inexpensive, low threshold, unobtrusive stimuli and features of the
decision context that steer people’s behaviour in desirable directions (as judged
by themselves), hold the promise of effective, low-cost and low-intrusion
behaviour-change tools (ibid.). It is important to note that nudges are just
one tool in the behavioural toolbox, and they are often used to supplement
or improve rather than substitute for other policy instruments such as laws,
taxes or information efforts (Sunstein, 2020a).
These lessons and insights inspire the present paper. Its focus will be on
the last point: the role of human decision-making and behaviours for food-
system change. It makes a case for a food system policy that incorporates
BIs, an approach that we call behavioural food policy. In the following,
we rst review the current challenges and problem areas for food systems
today. Second, we investigate the necessary steps and promising policy
approaches to trigger or support needed changes. Third, we sketch the contours
of a behaviourally informed food policy and close with suggested research
directions for transformative food system and policy research.
2 We use the OECD (https://www.oecd.org/regreform/behavioural-insights.htm) denition that is
mostly inspired by the work of the British Behavioural Insights Team: ‘An inductive approach to
policymaking that combines insights from psychology, cognitive science, and social science with
empirically-tested results to discover how humans actually make choices’.
6L. A. Reisch
2. Challenges and problems
2.1. Food-system policy: an overview
Food-system policy impacts how (and what type of) food is produced, pro-
cessed and distributed as well as purchased, consumed and disposed of. At its
core, food policy governs food security and food safety, healthy and envi-
ronmentally friendly diets, and access and equitability; indirectly, it also
inuences animal welfare and workers’ rights (Smith, 2016). In high-income
countries, major policy issues stem from a food system catering to ‘Western
diets’ that are connected to various public health issues (specically, the preva-
lence of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as Diabetes 2 and the
increased vulnerability of overweight patients), climate issues (e.g. the high
environmental impact of mass production of cattle), and other environmental
detriments such as biodiversity loss, soil degradation, nitrogen and pesticide
input and water shortages. The food system also impinges on and creates social
costs, from conicts over land use, working conditions and animal welfare to
equal access to healthy diets for poorer consumer segments in general and
children in particular. In the Global South and urban food deserts worldwide,
food security is another paramount issue. Also, foodborne diseases (zoonoses)
and food safety issues are an increasing concern worldwide and the source of
potential future pandemics.
Global food security is threatened by rising temperatures and increases in
the frequency of extreme weather and wildres. For instance, the recent Lancet
Countdown Report (Watts et al., 2020) indicates that global yield potential
for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6 per cent between 1981 and 2019. Also,
climate change has apparent downstream effects, impacting broader environ-
mental systems, thereby harming human health and livelihoods. A warming
world makes formerly safe regions suitable for all kinds of deadly diseases,
risking an explosion of new zoonotic pathogens and vector-borne diseases
(ibid.). It also makes regions unlivable and unbearable, a major reason for
poverty migration. The scientic evidence on the close connectedness of cli-
mate change, land use, food production, shrinking wildlife habitats, health
and poverty has reached a level that is hard to ignore for both the corpo-
rate and political world. In this spirit, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy
Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, representing the global
biodiversity-research community, has recently called for an ‘enlightened EU
Common Food Policy’ (De Schutter, Jaocbs and Clément, 2020), i.e. a policy
that is well adapted to the systemic nature of the challenges that food sys-
tems cope with: obesity and the rise of non-communicable diseases, climate
change, biodiversity loss and food poverty, to name a few. The authors sketch
an integrated food policy framework and suggest four steps of a governance
shift: coherence of policies across policy areas; coherence across governance
levels; governance for transition; and ‘food democracy’ (ibid.). This is a criti-
cal and laudable vision of comprehensive governance, and the new European
Green Deal reects some of these suggestions.
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 7
2.2. Malnutrition and overweight: the double burden
What people eat has become the leading cause of disease and death world-
wide, surpassing deaths caused by smoking or alcohol (GBD 2017 Diet
Collaborators, 2019). Malnutrition, in the form of undernutrition as well as
overweight, poses increasingly pressing problems—often at the same time
within the same countries. For instance, on the African continent, practically
every nation-state sees a growing obesity problem, particularly in the urban
centres (Battersby and Crush, 2014;Demmler and Qaim, 2020), with foresee-
able consequences for public health threats such as diabetes and cardiovascular
diseases, indicating a ‘double burden’ (Clark et al., 2020;Swinburn et al.,
2019). Unhealthy diets are the greatest health risk worldwide, and costs are
externalised to the public health system and the environment (Bodirsky et al.,
2020). There is an ongoing ‘nutrition transition’ that transforms food systems
globally, from now-scarce plant-based diets with fresh foods towards rich diets
high in sugar, fat and ultra-processed and animal-sourced foods (Baker et al.,
2020;Masters et al., 2016), bearing signicant environmental and health con-
sequences. A recent model (Bodirsky et al., 2020) estimated that by 2050,
45 per cent of the world population will be overweight and 16 per cent obese.
Moreover, the current global food system is failing large swaths of human-
ity who are decient in nutrients needed for good health. Malnutrition and
hunger are not a topic from the past but remain urgent issues in the Global
South and for the poor in the developed countries, a problem magnied by the
COVID-19 pandemic. Besides much-needed technological changes in farming
and production—such as more diverse, nutritious, and resilient crops as well as
innovative, digitally enhanced forms of sustainable farming—hope is pinned
on behavioural approaches that help strengthen food security (Timmers, 2012;
World Bank, 2015).
2.3. Climate and environmental impacts: preserving natural capital
and ecosystem services
There is strong scientic evidence that food production and consumption are
among the largest global environmental change drivers due to their contribu-
tions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, biodiversity loss, freshwater use,
eutrophication and land-system change (Creutzig et al., 2021). The food sys-
tem alone is responsible for 21–37 per cent of anthropogenic GHG emissions
(Rosenzweig et al., 2020). It is hence a critical focus for strategies of mitiga-
tion (i.e. reduction or elimination of current and expected future emissions)
and adaptation (i.e. building resilience for emerging and long-term climate
impacts) (Niles et al., 2018). However, these efforts will not sufce. What is
needed to secure long-term prosperity for people and the planet is a profound
food-system change that internalises external costs and protects natural capital
and the ecosystem services it provides. This is not a new insight. The need for
and mechanisms of internalisation of externalised environmental costs have
been discussed since the 1920s, and the unique character of natural capital has
been debated for decades under the title of ‘weak vs. strong sustainability’,
8L. A. Reisch
with proponents advocating for the protection of natural capital (including bio-
diversity) that cannot be replaced or built up like man-made and human capital
(Costanza et al., 2014).
Due to growing global afuence, global demand for emissions-intensive
foods (mainly meat and dairy) is rising, and demand for these foods is expected
to double globally by 2050 (Garnett, 2009, p. 491). Food policies with a sys-
tems view can have impact deep into the value chain and hold the potential
to change pre-production, production, processing, transport and consumption
of such problematic food groups, as well as to help minimise food loss and
waste (in general and of high-climate-impact foods in particular). Beyond
taxes, subsidies, regulations and technological and structural improvements,
the global climate-research community has identied behavioural changes
that would substantially mitigate food-related GHG emissions (IPCC, 2019).
Unsurprisingly, avoiding food waste and shifting diets towards more plant-
based nutrition are repeatedly named as most impactful measures. Much of
the food waste that occurs along the supply and consumption chain could
be avoided by monetary incentives (e.g. tax reductions for retailers sharing
food with food banks), supportive regulation (e.g. the French ban on throw-
ing away surplus food by retail), as well as simple behavioural measures. For
instance, paying attention to ‘avoidable household food waste’, meal planning
and creative use of leftovers, along with shifting attitudes towards edibility can
immediately help reduce the level of waste. Also, retail can focus its market-
ing on more sustainable options (Bauer et al., 2021), regulators can improve
the handling of expiration labels and best-before dates, and institutional food
services and corporate canteens could be operated under the concept that it
is not only money that gets wasted with poor food planning. As for reducing
meat consumption (particularly mass-produced beef) and substituting animal
protein with eld-grown protein, the importance of demand-side change for
mitigation is widely acknowledged (Garvey et al., 2020) and viewed as being
able to deliver environmental benets ‘on a scale not achievable by produc-
ers’ (Poore and Nemecek, 2018, p. 5). Regarding the impact and effectiveness
of regulating meat consumption, challenges have been identied, and dif-
ferent approaches are discussed (Bonnet et al., 2020), including behavioural
regulatory instruments (Reisch et al., 2021).
Acknowledging both the advancement and impact of demand-side policies,
the upcoming 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Cli-
mate Change (IPCC, n.d.) features a chapter dedicated solely to demand-side
climate-mitigation instruments, including BIs to promote more sustainable
diets. One of the chapter’s lead authors summarises the collected evidence
concluding that demand-side solutions’ high potential is still not utilised as it
should be (Creutzig et al., 2021).
2.4. Resilience and access: social sustainability and just transition
It seems safe to assume that balanced systems that stay within the plane-
tary boundaries and provide a minimum level of safety, access and equality
(Raworth, 2017) are more resilient than systems that aim to maximise one
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 9
outcome or that focus exclusively on prot-based efciency. The FAO (n.d.)
denes resilience as ‘the ability to prevent disasters and crises as well as to
anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from them in a prompt, efcient
and sustainable manner. This includes protecting, restoring and improving
livelihood systems in the face of threats that impact agriculture, nutrition,
food security and food safety’. As noted earlier, preparedness can increase
resilience, as do supportive contexts, trust in government policies, systems
thinking and design of robust structures.
The importance of resilient food systems became overwhelmingly clear
with the COVID-19-induced lockdowns and closing of national borders
(Acatech, 2020). While access to food was mostly not a problem in high-
income countries, where the combination of regional value chains and the food
industry’s access to global markets provided a resilient structure, the disruption
did reveal some weak spots and risky dependencies. Internationally, whereas
agricultural markets have stabilised following some initial volatility, millions
of people in emerging and developing countries had and still have only lim-
ited access to (healthy) food, due to both income loss and shortages induced by
governmental restrictions (ibid.). Today, more than one year into the pandemic
crisis, hunger and ‘hidden hunger’ are a serious topic.
In the near term, signicant thought will be given to the lessons learned
from the coronavirus pandemic that can be applied to future—not unlikely—
similar events. A key aspect is consideration of how to increase food systems’
resilience to be better prepared to endure another crisis (Acatech, 2020). Food
chains have become long and globalised, and retail systems are streamlined
for efciency, both adding to systems’ vulnerability. On the other hand, there
are limited resources for double structures and safety buffers. While the essen-
tial food provision in Europe did work during the crisis (not least due to local
food chains), cracks became evident at the retail level with shortages of sta-
ples. While many of these shortages were due to stockpiling by people—a
behavioural factor—rather than genuine supply shortages, those media-driven
incidents spotlighted the vulnerability of a system built on long, lean supply
chains and just-in-time inventories.
3. Steps towards healthy, sustainable and resilient food
3.1. From chain to system: nexus thinking
It is now common knowledge that the entire food system is crucial for build-
ing resilience and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
(Lawrence and Friel, 2020). This somewhat obvious insight has nally entered
the European (EU, 2020;SAPEA, 2020) and global (FAO, 2018;GLOPAN,
2020;HLPE, 2017;OECD, 2021;United Nations, 2020) food policy agenda,
where elaborate food-system frameworks have been developed. While deni-
tions slightly differ, in principle a sustainable food system is one where food
that is produced, manufactured, distributed and consumed is health supporting,
safe, and environmentally and climate friendly; farmers and workers receive
10 L. A. Reisch
fair wages and work under decent conditions; consumers have equal, easy and
affordable access to a diversity of healthy foods; and nutrition security is pro-
vided for today’s and future generations (HLPE, 2014;Lawrence and Friel,
Researchers, international organisations and forward-thinking policymak-
ers worldwide increasingly base their efforts on the nexus of climate, water,
land use, poverty and health (Aleksandrowicz et al., 2016) instead of focusing
on disciplinary silos and sector politics. With the advent of systems think-
ing, more academics, businesses and governments are approaching food policy
issues from a complex food-system view rather than from the traditional food-
chain approach or by focusing on single actors. By denition, a sustainable
food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes,
infrastructure, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production,
processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food and the out-
puts of these activities, including socio-economic, health and environmental
outcomes (HLPE, 2014;OECD, 2021). From a sociological perspective, these
systems are often viewed as complex ‘systems of provision’ (Bayliss and Fine,
2020)—with agents, structures, processes, relations and material cultures—
capturing the power-dependent interconnections among individuals’ choices,
their immediate food environment, and the larger social, economic, politi-
cal, technological, cultural and environmental contexts. Zooming in further
on the ‘agents’—i.e. the individual decision-makers such as farmers and
consumers—frameworks based on psychology and BE have recently gained
attention (Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and Van Bavel, 2019).
There is no doubt that all the above elements are potential levers for
change and that these changes will affect other system elements for better
or worse, with spillover or spillunder effects and reinforcement or undermin-
ing of impact. A recent study (Rosenzweig et al., 2020) structures dozens of
promising food-system response actions to climate change that actors within
the food system can apply: from improved crop and livestock management
in farming and improved supply-chain efforts in food processing, retail, and
agri-food industries to demand-side responses. The latter focus more broadly
on consumer and producer behaviour and include actions such as dietary
change, reduction of edible food loss (during production, postharvest and pro-
cessing), and the minimizing of food waste (food discarded by consumers
and retailers) that affect the transparency of food chains and externalised
costs. The overview by Rosenzweig et al. shows that synergies and trade-offs
between such responses will be crucial for success: ‘Options to reduce food
loss and waste can be more easily identied, designed and assessed through a
system approach—including technical measures … and behavioural changes
(for example, acceptance of less-than-perfect fruit and vegetable appearance,
redistribution of food surplus …)’ (ibid., p. 96). Widespread acknowledge-
ment of co-benets and the promotion of motive alliances within a nexus
approach would be a breakthrough in food, farm, environmental, consumer
and health policy—elds that closely interact to weave our methods of
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 11
3.2. From animal-sourced foods to plant-based planetary diets
For the individual consumer, food is the single most potent lever to optimise
one’s health and environmental sustainability at the same time: a diet light
in animal protein (ruminant meat, in particular) is better for human health,3
reduces stress on animal welfare, helps reduce foodborne diseases and food
safety issues and has—on average—a smaller ecological footprint on cli-
mate, soils, water and resources. Notably, a global diet primarily based on
plants is more socially equitable and fair and more easily scalable to feed
a growing worldwide population—an argument that has gained even more
weight since the COVID-19 pandemic also increased global social and health
inequality. In this spirit, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets for
Sustainable Food Systems has suggested promoting ‘healthy planetary diets’
(Willett et al., 2019), i.e. diets that are both nutritious and within the sus-
tainable food-production boundaries. The Lancet Commission has dened a
scalable ‘universal healthy reference diet’ that, if applied, can feed an antici-
pated global population of nearly ten billion people a healthy diet within the
food-production boundaries by 2050 (Willett et al., 2019, p. 447), thereby
dening what would be a safe operating space for ‘planet-proof’ food systems
om et al., 2020).
Promoting such a scalable planetary diet means actively opposing and alter-
ing the worldwide nutrition transition ongoing in an asynchronous way over
the past decades. Features of the ‘triple challenge’ (OECD, 2021) or ‘global
syndemic’ (Swinburn et al., 2019), i.e. undernutrition, overnutrition, and food-
related environmental pollution and climate change, have common drivers and
call for shared solutions (Bodirsky et al., 2020). Sustained behaviour changes
are central to all three challenges; therefore, the present paper calls for better
evidence-based policies that help promote behavioural change.
3.3. From traditional to behaviourally informed demand-side food
While agricultural policies primarily apply to the farming system and the
supply side of markets, food policies focus on people’s diets in all their com-
plexity. Historically, the two policy arenas tended to be inuenced by different
disciplinary perspectives: agricultural economics and plant/animal breeding on
the supply side, and consumer science, agro-marketing, and health sciences on
the demand side. Also, there always have been issues connecting both sides
of the market, such as subsistence farming in the Global South and a new wave
of own production and urban farming in the Global North.
Food policies target institutional and individual actors’ decision-making,
from breeders, farmers and growers to industry, retailers and prosumers to end
consumers (Reisch, Eberle and Lorek, 2013). For decades, the policy focus
was on the agricultural supply side and the distributional subsystem. Never-
theless, since the UN-driven SDG movement gained traction and the IPCC
3 We realise that this holds for the well-nourished consumers of high-income countries; in more
impoverished regions, an increase (in any meat) would add to the nutritional value.
12 L. A. Reisch
picked up on the demand-side mitigation potential, policies have also focused
on environmentally sustainable food consumption and the needed changes in
preferences, choices and notoriously persistent habits (Vermeir et al., 2020).
How to initiate and sustain behavioural change in individuals is the focus of
a large interdisciplinary research eld. Depending on the disciplinary roots
and existing theories, we nd competing theories of behavioural change (see,
e.g. Duckworth and Gross, 2020)4as well as different guides to behaviour-
change tactics and instruments (Beshears and Kosowsky, 2020). An inuential
recent approach, the ‘behaviour-change wheel’ (Michie et al., 2013), identi-
ed 93 different behaviour-change tactics. Kok et al. (2016) list 99 different
community-based techniques, and Knittle et al. (2020) describe 123 distinct
self-initiated techniques. A practitioner-based approach has been developed
over the past decades by Rare.org, the ‘Rare approach’ (Rare, & Behavioural
Insights Team, 2019;Rare, & California Environmental Associates, 2019),
that uses participative, engaging behavioural approaches to change behaviour
mainly in the Global South.5Last but not least, Behavioural Public Policy
(BPP) research has suggested several taxonomies and guides for employing
‘nudges’ (OECD, 2019;Sunstein, 2014) that mostly rely on Kahneman’s
‘System 1 vs. System 2’ approach, as sketched above.
Behaviourally informed policy also means being aware that agents’ actions
are highly context dependent. Only a few particularly dedicated individu-
als will show the right behaviour in the wrong structures, i.e. sustainable
choices within a context of affordances, social norms and incentives that sup-
port non-sustainable options. In sustainable-consumption research, one of the
most common ndings is a marked attitude–behaviour gap6on the part of
consumers (Aschemann-Witzel and Zielke, 2017). More rule than exception,
the gap is explainable by biases, heuristics and context dependency. Hence,
promoting behaviour change on the individual level—condensed in the tril-
ogy ‘improve, shift and avoid’—without respective institutional, contextual
and system changes that frame, support and sometimes initiate or re-initiate
changes will not be useful in the long run.
For sure, information policies targeting consumers such as front-of-pack
labelling can help interested and aware consumers to make a better choice.
For instance, the new ‘Nutriscore’ label that uses intuitive colour codes for
easy reference seems to work for some (Andreeva et al., 2021). However,
while information offers might spark short-lived changes, sustained long-term
effects such as habit creation, taste discovery and deep learning are unlikely to
happen for most consumers (Volpp and Loewenstein, 2020). Some informa-
tion might even have off-target, unintended side effects such as rebound and
moral licensing effects, and boomerang and reactance effects, as well as pos-
sibly creating behavioural fatigue or reinforcing lock-ins. However, the risk
4 The authors suggest a ‘process theory of behavioural change’ that differentiates between changes
initiated by the individual and those where an external actor (such as a benevolent employer, the
regulatory state and a civil society actor) nudges this individual.
5 Disclosure: the author is a (non-paid) member of the Scientic Board of Rare.org.
6 Behavioural economics has developed the concept of ‘x-inefciencies’ (Altman, 2020) for
behaviours that empirically diverge from what the models suggest.
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 13
of unintended side effects of food policies applies to traditional instruments
alike (e.g. regressive effects of fat taxes, see Muller et al., 2017); this calls for
empirical ex ante and ex post evaluations of intended and unintended effects
as a basic feature of good governance.
Behaviourally informed food policy harnesses what has been called a
‘behavioural wedge’ in climate politics (Dietz et al., 2009), i.e. employing
the (potentials and limits of) ‘behavioural plasticity’ of human decisions and
behaviours on the part of the farmers, consumer-citizens, policymakers and
policy shapers. The design of impactful policies starts with understanding
this ‘wedge’, the roles, goals, incentives, perceptions, needs and interests of
both the targeted actors and the decision-makers, and identifying the barriers,
drivers and capacity for change. The latter requires the knowledge of options
and the resources to consider, initiate and maintain change. Importantly,
people drive change, adopt technical innovation (or not) and catalyse social
innovation (or not). In short, successful policies put people—their wishes,
goals, fears, biases and the inevitable behaviours that follow—in the centre
of the problem and assume a people-centric view; they identify individual and
contextual drivers and barriers in the specic case and test how different policy
solutions resonate in different situations and thereby drive behavioural change.
The OECD (2019) has condensed the knowledge about this stepwise pro-
cedural approach of BPP design into a guide for practitioners. As regards
food-system change, it recently suggests public–private collaboration through
behavioural nudges (OECD, 2021), particularly those enhanced by digi-
tal technologies (Baragwanath, 2021). In more detail, the Global Panel
on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (GLOPAN, Global Panel
on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, 2020) has proposed a
behaviourally enlightened policy framework on Agriculture and Food Systems
for Nutrition. Here, priority policy actions to transition food systems are based
on the four behavioural pillars of availability, accessibility, affordability and
desirability (see Figure 1).
This simple framework, informed by the knowledge provided by consumer
behaviour models, is a good starting point for behavioural policy action and
research. A growing set of studies and reviews has shown the effectiveness
of small nudge and choice-architecture interventions, curating the availabil-
ity, accessibility, affordability and desirability of several behavioural change
goals. For instance, increasing the visibility of meat substitutes (Vandenbroele
et al., 2021), offering smaller meat portion sizes (Vandenbroele et al., 2018)
and making more sustainable meat more salient (Coucke et al., 2019) have
helped reduce meat demand in these cases. Simultaneously, well-targeted,
well-designed and combined behavioural nudges appear to have a moderately
signicant effect on fruit and vegetable choices (Broers et al., 2017). Beyond
effectiveness, there also seems to be a generally high level of public acceptance
of behavioural instruments in general and ‘green’ and ‘health’ nudges specif-
ically (Sunstein and Reisch, 2019) in many countries worldwide. Acceptance
(and presumably, also the effectiveness) can be increased when the nudges
are actively included in the policymaking process and there is an option to
14 L. A. Reisch
Fig. 1. Priority policy actions to transition food systems towards sustainable, healthy diets.
Source:GLOPAN (2020: 20).
participate in the creation process (John, 2018). To the contrary, acceptance is
reduced when people assume that the nudges are not transparent and that they
are being tricked into a decision—for instance, by a System 1 nudge such as
a default they do not even realise exists (Wachner, Adriaanse and De Ridder,
2020). People seem to prefer System 2 nudges (Sunstein, 2016a), and it has
repeatedly been argued that full transparency is a dening element of good
governance of nudging (Sunstein and Reisch, 2019).
This paper is not the rst to suggest such a behavioural perspective for food
policy, not even in this journal (Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and Van Bavel, 2019).
In the search for effective policy instruments to curb the worldwide obesity
crisis, Just (2006) and a decade later Just and Gabrielyan (2016) called for
the BI to be systematically included in global food policy. While they see the
potential, they claim that there is still not enough evidence to roll out a full
policy approach (ibid.). Similarly, Liu et al. (2014) review behavioural biases
that are critical drivers for overeating and obesity and call for a food policy that
builds on BIs. Reecting food-security policy, Timmers (2012) recommends a
new theoretical underpinning to political economic analysis that incorporates
the behavioural perspective. With many others, Guthrie, Mancino and Lin
(2015) and Vandenbroele et al. (2021) suggest nudging approaches to change
food consumption behaviour towards greater sustainability. The EAT-Lancet
Commission’s project of a ‘Great Food Transformation’ targets different actors
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 15
in the food system and explicitly relies on demand-side approaches, employ-
ing the ‘Triple-A’ of behavioural public policy: improve access, attractiveness
(desirability) and affordability (Willett et al., 2019).
Creutzig et al. (2021) propose a transdisciplinary approach to identify
demand-side solutions with high climate-mitigation potential, and they explic-
itly suggest behaviourally informed policy tools, nudges and choice architec-
ture as promising methods. A 2020 SAPEA review report lists ‘food choice
architecture’ and ‘social norms’ as particularly recommended approaches to
shape a European sustainable food policy. Indeed, recent literature reviews
suggest a high impact of both, choice architecture (Ensaff, 2021) and social
norms (Enriquez and Archila-Godinez, 2021). Consequently, there is a call
to focus on the ‘diversity of cultural norms’ as one of ve priority areas of
research and action for the great food-system transformation (Béné et al.,
2020). Targeting a practitioner audience, the British Behaviour Insights Team
(BIT) (2020) recently reviewed strategies, tools and insights for behavioural
food policy and mapped opportunities and limits, highlighting 12 behavioural
A similar trend can be seen in agricultural policy that also starts to embrace
behavioural factors for more effective policymaking. Recent reviews of the
literature suggest that the eld of behavioural agricultural economics is gain-
ing relevance in academia and policy (Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and Van Bavel,
2019;Palm-Forster et al., 2019;Thomas, 2019). For instance, behavioural
factors are used to better understand farmers’ motivations for sustainable
farming (Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and Van Bavel, 2019;Thomas, 2019) and
to ‘green’ the European Common Agricultural Policy (Thomas, 2019). It is
argued that voluntary schemes to incentivise sustainable farming practices
warrant a behavioural perspective to be effective (Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and
Van Bavel, 2019).
Altogether, the time seems ripe for both conceptual and empirical work on
the polity, policies and politics of a behavioural food policy. As suggested
earlier (Reisch, Sunstein and Gwozdz, 2017), BIs can inform food policy in
multiple ways: rst, by using a specic behavioural lens to examine existing
food policies (and thereby make them more effective); second, by adding new
tools (such as defaults) to the toolbox and third, by employing policy design
and policy processes based on empirical testing, learning, adapting and sharing
the results with others (Dessart, Barreiro-Hurlé and Van Bavel, 2019). Else-
where, a scheme for ‘good governance of nudging’ has been put forth (Sunstein
and Reisch, 2019), including transparent goals and processes, a strict welfare-
orientation, public deliberation and informed participation by policy targets to
increase effectiveness but also to forge understanding, create ownership and
strengthen public approval.
While the potential seems great, recent literature reviews on behavioural
change towards more sustainable lifestyles demand a sense of caution: in gen-
eral, the larger the mitigation potential of action, the less willing households
seem to be to implement it (Dubois et al., 2019). Moreover, most poli-
cies effectively mitigating climate change show low behavioural plasticity—
including reducing meat consumption and avoiding food waste (Nisa et al.,
16 L. A. Reisch
2019). A recent systematic review (SAPEA, 2020) concludes that based on the
available evidence, the most considerable potentials for behavioural change in
the direction of more sustainable lifestyles lie in taxes and consumer informa-
tion such as labels. More evidence is needed for promising choice-architecture
and social norm-based approaches. Without doubting this conclusion, this
paper argues for expanding the evidence base in regard to the effectiveness of
behavioural instruments for behaviour changes in the food system and makes
some concrete suggestions on priority research areas below.
4. Research directions for behavioural food policy
4.1. Transdisciplinary and transformative research
In the current crisis, decision-makers in the food system are grappling with
the many ‘unknowns’ they encounter while being asked to manage today and
plan the future. We need better insight into what people want, which needs
and fears they have, how they make decisions and what hinders and supports
them in changing unwanted or undesirable habits. At the same time, we also
need knowledge about people’s acceptance of improved products and pro-
cesses, as well as innovative policy tools. Last but not least, there is a need
to co-create visions of the future: how do we envision the future’s food sys-
tem? How can we co-create transformative pathways and negotiate divergent
views and interests within different regions and societies to reach those goals?
These are normative questions, and researchers must be transparent about their
normative stand when delivering to society.
On a conceptual level, we mainly see gains from transformative research,
i.e. research that aims to deliver on a normative mission promoting change pro-
cesses. This is linked but not identical to transformation research, i.e. the study
of societal transformations, their processes, barriers and promotors.7Finally,
to deliver on the many ‘unknowns’ of the complex food system, we suggest
atransdisciplinary research perspective, i.e. research that explicitly reaches
beyond single disciplines as well as beyond academia and includes actors from
politics, civil society and the private sector across the entire research process,
starting with the development of a joint research question (Lawrence and Friel,
2020). As depicted in Figure 2, such an approach can provide the following:
orientation knowledge that constructs and shapes the goals of processes of
societal transformation: e.g. what do we know about the state of the food
system and its impacts on the SDGs, and which goals should be set?
systems knowledge, the empirical study of present challenges: e.g. how
are the variables of a food system interlinked? Which are ampliers and
transformation knowledge that develops practical (political, technical, legal,
social and cultural) means and tools to advance transformations and achieve
7 ‘Transition research’ is usually understood as an overarching concept for both.
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 17
Fig. 2. Four types of knowledge systems.
Source: based on Lawrence, Nanz and Renn (2021).
dened goals: e.g. what can specic interventions and pilot projects con-
tribute, and how can this be scaled up? How do we evaluate the cost-
effectiveness of interventions?
process knowledge, which is about processes of knowledge generation and
collaborative goal nding as well as ways to channel socially robust knowl-
edge to decision-makers; it is about the ‘how’ of change processes and of
transformative research: who are the key actors to include, and how can
effective change processes be designed and executed?
The targets of this knowledge are both academia and practice actors, the
latter including (but not limited to) public administrators and food agencies,
policymakers and policy shapers (such as foundations, NGOs), entrepreneurs
and managers, retail and restaurants, schools and higher education, as well as
the individual citizen consumer. Much (but not all) of this research will be
applied, and often, co-creation with selected targets will be the most impact-
ful way to create and test hands-on prototype solutions. While being explicit
about their normative goals, researchers’ role will be to apply the methods
in a scientically rigorous way, to create empirical evidence and to consult
decision-makers as an ‘honest broker’.
18 L. A. Reisch
4.2. Research priorities
While BIs are being embraced in politics and management, the scientic
empirical evidence and the theoretical foundations of this nascent eld are
growing but remain patchy, also as regards their application in food-system
policy. Increasingly, systematic and scoping literature reviews and systematic
maps on selected behavioural food policy instruments are being published,
indicating that the research eld has reached a level where it is worth compil-
ing and reviewing the existing evidence. Some of these reviews systematically
depict research gaps and suggest promising areas to further develop nudg-
ing and nudges inuencing food demand (see, e.g. Bauer and Reisch, 2019;
Reisch et al., 2021;Vermeir et al., 2020). The three topics of prominence due
to their signicant impact potential are rst, instruments to shape individual
food behaviour; second, shaping the food environment and in addition to that
the consumption settings and third, food circularity, with a focus on curbing
food waste by households, food services and retail.
This is not the place to discuss individual research gaps. Given the aim
of shaping healthy planetary food systems with behaviourally informed poli-
cies, it is perhaps more important to ask which type of transformative research
and knowledge creation is needed most to reach that goal and deliver scien-
tic evidence for policymakers. Transformations towards sustainability can
be understood as open-ended search processes. Sustainability research sup-
ports these processes by generating factual knowledge (‘knowing that’) and
practical knowledge (‘knowing how’), but also by reconstructing and ethically
substantiating the values and norms that guide action.
‘Knowing that’ is primarily based on orientation knowledge that provides
the goal, rationale and direction of system change, as well as systems knowl-
edge that reects the relations within the food system, the goal synergies and
antinomies, the power relations among the actors and insights into the roots of
‘wicked problems’. The behavioural element, the focus of the present paper,
is most pronounced in ‘Knowing how’, i.e. transformation knowledge and
process knowledge as covered below in more depth.
4.3. Transformation knowledge
As noted above, transformation knowledge helps to make intended changes
happen—here: towards planetary and healthy food systems. It provides
the needed empirical evidence for the effectiveness and acceptability of
behavioural instruments that work. It also includes knowledge of methods
studying and evaluating the effects of interventions, as well as the theoretical
and conceptual foundations of the eld to model pathways and explain results.
The literature in which transformation knowledge is developed is genuinely
The behavioural sciences have provided theories and produced extensive
empirical evidence about large individual and group differences in behavioural
plasticity (Nielsen et al., 2020), i.e. adaptation and behavioural change on an
individual level, through experience, exposure and learning. As captured in
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 19
Box 1. Research questions: individual level
•Which nudges work best for which target group? Can we nd systematic dif-
ferences between genders,aage groups, personality traits (the ‘big ve’), socio-
economic groups, ethnic cultures and nationsbin terms of effectiveness and
acceptance? How are effectiveness and acceptance interlinked?
•How do social and cultural norms regarding food choice evolve and change and can
this be inuenced and steered (Enriquez and Archila-Godinez, 2021)? By whom
and based on which legitimate role (Béné et al., 2020)?
•(How) Can we safely and ethically harness information and availability cas-
cades (Sunstein, 2019) as well as behavioural and social contagion (Frank, 2020;
Sunstein, 2020b) to spread new norms and ideas?
•Which nudges are particularly impactful and/or cost-effective? Which are cultur-
ally and socially robust over different target groups?
•What are the long-run effects of behavioural interventions on actual consumption?
When and how do effects fade out?
•How to monitor and avoid unintended side effects and non-target outcomes
(spillovers, rebounds, boomerang and moral licencing)?
•How can BIs improve the effectiveness of existing tools, such as product informa-
tion or taxes?
•How can behavioural tools best be combined with traditional demand-side tools
such as boosting food skills, goal setting and offering more relevant and intuitively
understandable information and updated dietary guidelines? Are there ideal suites
or temporal patterns for successful interventions?
•When do nudges fail (Sunstein, 2017), when do consumers dodge nudges (Colby,
Li and Chapman, 2020) and what can be done to prevent failure?
aFor instance, behavioural research knows the ‘white male effect’ regarding risk assessment and openness to
change; as regards meat consumption, men seem to be harder to reach and convince.
bOne of the few exceptions: Kasdan and Lee (2020).
socio-cognitive models for sustainable consumption behaviour (e.g. Phipps
et al., 2013), the key variables inuencing people’s motivation, ability and
potential to change towards more sustainable behaviours include cultural and
social norms, socio-economic status, education, gender and age, individual
character traits, family and peers, as well as political orientation. The key ques-
tion is how people’s biases and heuristics, ‘desire lanes’ (i.e. informal paths),
and habits can be harnessed or overcome by behavioural stimuli to adapt,
shift and improve diets towards greater sustainability. Exemplary research
questions for the individual level are presented in Box 1.
Besides individual factors, the wider and immediate food environment
mediates people’s food acquisition and consumption within the larger food
system. It encompasses such diverse variables as availability, accessibility,
affordability, the desirability of sustainably produced, nutrient-rich food, as
well as vendor and product characteristics, promotion information, the choice
architecture of stores and more (GLOPAN, 2020). Multilevel and ecologi-
cal models of sustainable consumption (e.g. Milfont and Markowitz, 2016)
20 L. A. Reisch
Box 2. Research questions: environmental level.
•Can food product innovations such as meat (and milk) substitutes and alternatives, and
hybrid and extended shelf-life products, be a solution, and how can demand be stimulated?
•Can we successfully utilise information nudges (such as digitally enhanced best-before
data labels on packaged food), reminders (such as in-app messages; Valle, Nezami and
Tate, 2020), and digitally enhanced food-sharing platforms (such as ‘Too Good To Go’),
and how should they be designed to enhance adoption by consumers? How can in-store
choice-architecture promotions and analytics-based tools predict purchases and optimise
•Beyond the food system, dietary choices are closely interlinked with other lifestyle aspects
(transport, mobility, housing, work, informal work, and healthy lifestyles) and the respec-
tive availability, affordability, and accessibility of options. Can we better understand
non-area inuences and non-area effects?
•Can technological solutions such as social data science and digital nudging help design
targeted, effective change strategies? How can this be done in an ethically acceptable way?
Can algorithmic systems be used to de-bias (i.e. objectivise) decision-making and attitude
development, e.g. towards novel foods?
focus on the inuence that the different environments have on (food) choice,
i.e. the national, regional and household framework of rules, norms, expecta-
tions and values, as well as infrastructure. Food marketing plays a vital role
here since it curates the interface between supply and demand regarding prod-
ucts, prices and preferences. A key question is how these (real and virtual)
interfaces can best be designed (choice architecture) to make the healthy and
planetary sustainable choice the easy and most rewarding choice and to pro-
vide the most fun, attractive and timely (FEAST) affordances.8Exemplary
research questions are mentioned in Box 2.
While we have a solid knowledge about some of the inuential individual
and environmental factors and pathways regarding policies for food-demand
transformation (Creutzig et al., 2021), critiques have noted the need to raise
evidence levels of BE-informed policies to enable solid policy advice (e.g.
Ijzerman et al., 2020). Also, behavioural research should be extended beyond
consumers and prosumers, to include decision-makers in large households,
organisations, public procurement entities, retail and other actors who are in
a position to transform the food system. Here, however, we are mostly at the
8 For instance, the EU Group of Chief Scientic Advisors (EU, European Union, 2020) recommends
in its ‘Scientic Opinion Towards a Sustainable Food System’ (No. 8, March 2020) as one of three
key actions: ‘Address power and information asymmetries and make the easiest choice for citizens
sustainable’ (emphasis added). The Scientic Opinion informs the Farm to Fork Strategy of the
European Green Deal Call that identied four target impacts, among them: ‘reduction of food
loss and waste’ and ‘shifting to sustainable and healthy diets’. See also SAPEA (SAPEA, Science
Advice for Policy by European Academies, 2020).
Shaping healthy and sustainable food systems 21
Box 3. Research questions: process level
•Who are the main (powerful) actors within food policy, creating the institutional
and regulatory framework of food governance in a society, in a region, in a city?
Are these actors aware of BIs and the ‘rational irrationality’ of people?
•How can schemes of ‘levels of evidence’ help policymakers evaluate existing
evidence (Ijzerman et al., 2020)?
•How can policymakers spark and maintain consumer-citizens’ broader engage-
ment as end-users of products, services and infrastructure in the design, testing
and reinvention of innovations?aCan we develop and test best-practice approaches
for human-centred design, recognising people’s civic agency and expertise in their
•Which role can human-centred design, systems thinking and moderated dialogues
and citizen juries play in the co-creation processes, e.g. for innovative prototype
•How can eld experiments play a more signicant role in public policy (see, e.g.
Al-Ubaydli et al., 2021;McConnell, 2021)?
•How can we harness living labs for this transition, involving different stakeholders
(citizens, administrators, policymakers, retail, restaurants, food industry, start-ups
and civic actors)?
•Can nudges reduce disparities and social inequalities by participative design
(Mrkva et al., 2021)?
•How can we harness the potential of sustainable food businesses, i.e. small-scale
enterprises working to deliver environmental sustainability, health and local eco-
nomic development? Which type of supporting policies do they need to thrive?
How can we harness the potential of emerging industry initiatives?
•What are recent promising food policy innovations in different countries (Walton
and Hawkes, 2020), and what can we learn from them? How far are they
aFor instance, see the results from an Australian deliberative forum (a ‘Citizens Jury’) on obesity hosted
by an Australian Behavioural Insights Team, which produced rather radical proposals, including nudging
governments and legislators themselves (Halpern, 2015).
4.4. Process knowledge
Process knowledge is about organising behaviourally informed food
policymaking on different political levels, organising successful co-creation
processes and implementing widely accepted policy programmes. This also
includes skills in a case-specic design of pilots, testing in labs and then real-
world settings, participative feedback loops and policy cycles to adapt and
improve. BI-based solutions are rarely ‘one size ts all’ and usually have to
be tested and adapted on a case-specic basis. Policies and instruments tend
to be more accepted and more effective if co-created or tested with the targets
themselves, in participatory approaches with stakeholders and practice part-
ners (John, 2018). Questions deserving research attention are mentioned in
22 L. A. Reisch
With only 10 years left to meet the SDGs, policymakers, practitioners and
researchers are exploring how food systems can be made more resilient and
more serviceable to people’s long-term well-being and that of the planet. This
paper has argued that a behavioural approach to policy can help support and
sustain system changes, an approach that is called behavioural food policy.
Today, many cities, regions and governments worldwide make systematic use
of BIs to transform food systems (Sunstein, 2016b;BIT, 2020). The results
of their work strongly indicate that coupling considerations for context oppor-
tunities and limitations with a scientic understanding of people’s behaviour
and choices tends to enable the development of strategies, policies and mea-
sures that are more effective, accepted, suitable and tted to the purpose than
traditional model–based policies.
From a system perspective, big transformations tend to be triggered by one
or more of four factors: a profound change of values in society (e.g. wast-
ing edible food is not acceptable), a disruptive crisis (such as the COVID-19
pandemic) with visible tipping points, disruptive new technologies and inno-
vations (e.g. digitisation and biotechnology) and, sometimes, visions and big
ideas promoted by charismatic and trustworthy leaders (with some examples
from the climate movement). The current double crisis has a bit of all four
factors. In fact, it might even have a positive element since it blows open
windows for change to develop and test cooperatively new policy tools that
could help feed the world while conserving the planet’s resources and wildlife
and securing fair access for all. The rst concrete results of such transfor-
mative food systems changes might become visible at the UN Food Systems
Summit mentioned in Section 1, where food activists, practitioners, policy-
makers and researchers from the global food system will debate and promote
game-changing solutions for a more sustainable, just and health-supporting
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