Sophie Attwood: The behavioural scientist helping us choose more sustainable foods

What we eat has a huge impact not just on our health, but also on that of the planet. This is common knowledge. Yet despite a smorgasbord of studies telling us which foods we should and shouldn’t consume, many of us find it hard to do the right thing. Sophie Attwood’s research takes a different approach: rather than presenting the bare facts on diet and its contribution to climate change, she uses behavioural science to persuade people to choose greener options. In May, she and her colleagues at global sustainability think tank the World Resources Institute released a major report on how the food industry can nudge people towards more sustainable fare. The aim isn’t to browbeat consumers, but to increase the appeal of plant-based options and reduce our desire to choose meat.

Graham Lawton: How much of a problem are unsustainable diets for the climate?

Sophie Attwood: Massive. The type of food people eat is the biggest cause of climate change related to diet. A lot of people think it’s stuff like food miles and pesticides. It’s actually not. It’s beef, for multiple reasons, the main one being that cattle often get fed on soya. Soya is usually from deforested areas, so you have to cut down the rainforest. And then you need around 20 kilograms of soya to produce 1 kilogram of beef. It’s a highly inefficient way to produce calories. Aside from that, the cattle themselves emit a lot of methane from gut fermentation and nitrogen from manure. There are greenhouse gases along the entire chain.

We simply cannot continue to eat the way we…

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