View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

How can we change people’s behaviour?

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I recently woke to the news that environmental activists were arrested for scaling the roof of New Zealand’s parliament to raise awareness of climate change (my alarm is set to the Today programme, so I guess I’m not alone). This didn’t fill me with hope. I’m not sure awareness is the problem – what we’re lacking is action.

Take healthy eating as an example – it’s widely known what a healthy diet looks like, and also widely ignored. So I was interested to read a Global Food Security blog post about research into behaviour change. What could make peopleĀ  switch to a healthy, sustainable diet?

The post stressed the importance of Government interventions (so perhaps the NZ activists were targeting the right building, even if their stunt is unlikely to influence MPs). Leaving it to the individual or the producers isn’t going to work.

As was pointed out in the British Library’s recent event on sustainable fishing, consumers say that environmental considerations are important for their choices, but when they’re in the supermarket they vote with their wallet. Studies show that approaches aimed at getting individuals to change voluntarily have limited impacts.

This seemed relevant when Twitter (OK, @HStiles1 to be precise) had a link about nudging people towards greener choices. It turns out that, although price drives our choices, we are also fairly lazy. If green choices are presented as the default option people are far more likely to take them.

It sometimes seems as if there are two camps – one saying ‘consumption will increase, so we need GM/new technologies’, and an environmental backlash raising awareness and telling us we need to change. Perhaps we need something smarter in the middle – still looking to achieve behaviour change but being more realistic about how it will happen.

Even with interventions to change consumer behaviour, we will still need to increase food production – the population is growing and an overall increase in meat consumption is probably inevitable. It’s not that we can afford to ditch research into increasing yield (whether this is through GM or other techniques), just that we shouldn’t give up on changing consumption.


Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

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