Putting Healthy, Low-Emission Food on the Menu

New study finds “green consumerism” is alive and well in China, with consumers willing to pay more for sustainable food.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which form the United Nations’ Post-2015 Development Agenda, are designed to provide a blueprint for achieving global peace and prosperity by 2030. Central to the agenda is the second SDG, which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”

Meeting such policy objectives is critical to the prospects of many developing countries, as well as emerging economic powerhouses such as China, but they also pose a formidable challenge. Global food production is predicted to more than double by 2050, to meet growing demand that comes mainly from developing countries, as the world’s population, which reached eight billion in 2022, expands by around 0.8 percent per year.

Not only does the speed of population growth make the goal of food security hard to achieve, but demand for carbon-intensive meat products in developing countries tends to increase as they become richer. This trend, which is accelerating in China, following decades of rapid economic growth, can result in significant environmental damage, thereby frustrating the goal of making agriculture more sustainable.

A Growing Demand of Animal Protein

As populations switch to a Western-style diet, there is also a growing demand from consumers for beef and dairy products instead of other forms of animal protein. However, previous research shows that cattle farming results in eight times more greenhouse gas emissions per 100g of protein than the production of chicken or fish. 

So how can food production be made more environmentally sustainable and resilient, while also feeding more people more effectively? A novel approach to cracking this conundrum that has emerged over recent years is focused on changing consumption patterns away from carbon-intensive foods such as meat and dairy products and towards sustainable foodstuffs. But can consumers actually be motivated to change their behaviour?

A timely new study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has addressed this question by investigating the factors that motivate consumers in China to purchase food which is produced in a way that protects the environment, conserves natural resources such as air, energy and water, and uses less energy.
Entitled The Future of Sustainable Food Production in China, the study was conducted by Francisco Cisternas, Assistant Professor in the Department of Marketing at CUHK Business School; in partnership with five other CUHK academics. They are Prof. Honming Lam and Dr. Carolina Andrea Contador Sariego of School of Life Sciences; Prof. Shelly Lap-ah Tse, Dr. Shuyuan Yang and Dr. Zhiguang Liu of the Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care; scholars from other universities in China, Canada and the UK also took part.

Attitudes and Social Norms Affect Consumer’s Choice

The researchers theorised that consumers’ willingness to purchase environmentally friendly food is determined by their intentions, which in turn are affected by their attitude towards such purchasing behaviour; the social norms to which they are exposed; the degree of perceived control over their ability to make such purchases; and their perceptions of the food’s quality. 

To test out the theory, they conducted a face-to-face survey of 2,422 Chinese consumers in rural and urban districts across five provinces, spanning northern and southern China, who formed a representative sample of the whole population. The five cities involved – Beijing, Nanchang, Xi’an, Taiyuan, and Shenyang – were chosen to reflect different income levels across China.

Respondents’ behavioural attitudes were measured in terms of their degree of concern about deforestation, drying lakes and rivers, and other damage caused by the use of land and water resources for agricultural production; while social norms were assessed by examining the extent to which participants were influenced to buy sustainable food by pressure from government bodies, the media, experts, international agencies, and social media commentators. 

Perceived behavioural control was measured in terms of the cost and convenience of making purchases and participants’ views on certification systems and purchase conditions. The perceived quality of sustainable food was assessed by examining their views on the ingredients, nutritional values and health benefits of the food, plus their degree of trust in certification schemes. Certification agencies involved in the study included international agencies, the Chinese central government, and local universities and scientific institutions.

Consumers Prioritise Environment in Food Purchases

“The results confirm that Chinese consumers are inclined to purchase sustainable food,” says Prof. Cisternas. “Among the four factors, behavioural attitude contributed most to people’s willingness to buy sustainable food.”

“These consumers are highly concerned about the impact of their food consumption on the environment, rather than simply considering personal benefits such as food safety. They limit their demand for non-sustainable food and replace their needs with sustainable alternatives.”

Prof. Cisternas says this willingness to spend more for sustainable food may be a form of the sort of “green consumerism” that prompts people to buy fair trade products, which cost more without necessarily offering better quality, yet still provide consumer satisfaction.

The second biggest impact on people’s willingness to purchase sustainable food was from social norms, with government promotions, and information in the media and on social media from experts, academics and commentators all influencing their readiness to pay more for environmentally friendly food, the study found.

Perceived quality also played a part, with nutritional values, and health and nutritional benefits having more impact than the simple ingredients of the food, while lower levels of perceived behavioural control – partly measured by the distance between a participant’s home and markets stocking sustainable food – had the expected negative impact. 

Enhancing Food Certifications Builds Trust in Sustainable Consumption

“The result showed that greater difficulty in accessing sustainable food reduced participants’ willingness to purchase such food,” says Prof. Cisternas. “This indicates that making it more convenient to purchase sustainable food would boost consumers’ intention to buy these items.”

The study also found that participants’ willingness to buy sustainable food was affected by the type of certification scheme it was covered by, with consumers placing most trust in certification by the Chinese central government. However, compared to consumers in other countries, Chinese consumers had a lower level of trust in food certification schemes overall.

Prof. Cisternas says the findings, which can be generalised to the whole population of China – and similar countries and regions – due to the representative nature of the survey, have implications for food policy. 

“Information disseminated through the media and social media by government bodies, experts, international agencies, and commentators is more likely to influence consumers, when the organisations concerned are considered trustworthy,” he says.

“The government should work together with other agencies to boost consumers’ trust in sustainable food by ensuring that the information provided is scientifically-based, accurate, comprehensive and communicated effectively. Further improvements to certification schemes and better regulation and compliance monitoring may also help to build trust.” (Source: scmp.com)

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