The Mediterranean diet for more sustainable consumption

Empowering consumers as agents of change can have an important impact on food sustainability

Hamid El Bilali CIHEAM

The Mediterranean diet, rich in plant-based and local foods, has been associated with significant improvements in health benefits related to non-communicable diseases and nutritional status. It has also been recognized as a sustainable diet because of its lower environmental impact on the use of soil, water and energy1 and the positive potential for climate mitigation.2 In addition, its social and cultural relevance led the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to acknowledge it as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. However, evidence3 shows a decline in adherence to the Mediterranean diet in countries across the Mediterranean. Among the drivers of this decline are urbanization trends and lifestyle changes, which are reducing the time available for cooking and the regularity of meals, leading to a shift in consumer demand for more resource-intensive food products, such as ultra-processed and pre-cooked meals, pre-packaged food products with longer durability. This has implications on agrifood systems dynamics, in particular on the health of consumers, and their environmental footprint.

Empowering consumers to make informed food choices is key to enable the transformation of Mediterranean agrifood systems. Engaged consumers, adequately equipped to choose healthy, nutritious and environmentally sustainable diets, are a driving force to ensure a conducive environment for sustainable consumption and production, while increasing transparency and trust within the agrifood systems the whole agrifood system. Multisectoral engagement has the potential to amplify and channel consumers’ voices to decision-makers, and to offer a deeper understanding of consumers’ rights and needs that are conducive to healthier diets and more inclusive and sustainable agrifood systems in the Mediterranean. Stimulating consumers’ behavioural change requires effective collaboration between national and local authorities, educational institutions, consumer organizations and mass media.

Consumers are increasingly demanding more transparency, and higher environmental and ethical standards from the food sector. Consumer organizations are well placed to protect consumers’ needs as emerging trends and technologies transform agrifood systems. They have the knowledge and expertise to represent and empower consumers in influencing the food industry and markets and being involved in decision-making processes.4

Education for sustainable consumption plays a central role in promoting the change to a more sustainable lifestyle, to motivate individuals to take responsibility for the impact of their daily choices and to change underlying social norms. Awareness resulting from education on sustainable lifestyles is vital to make these drastic lifestyle shifts acceptable through alternative solutions. At the same time, involving consumers in research and innovation processes is required to better understand their needs and preferences. Consumer-driven data collected through surveys, digital tools (e.g. mobile apps), and comparative analyses enable researchers to develop recommendations and guidelines to drive more sustainable consumption patterns. Raising schoolchildren’s awareness on food consumption link to levers The SWITCHtoHEALTHY project link to levers

From a policy and normative perspective, formulating mechanisms for sustainable public food procurement has the potential to promote the Mediterranean diet, while supporting local economies and environmental sustainability. Sustainable public food procurement can drive choices about what foods to purchase, leading to an increase in the variety and quantity of nutritious foods served to consumers in public institutions and school canteens and to the promotion of traditional nutritious food, such as in the case of the Mediterranean diet. At the same time, sustainable public food procurement can influence the food supply side, driving choices about whom food is purchased from, therefore becoming an instrument to support local and small producers and a stimulus for the economic development of communities. Finally, public food procurement can be designed to support and promote forms of agricultural production that ensure environmental sustainability, including natural resources management and biodiversity conservation. Sustainable school meals in Valencia, Spain link to levers Educational programmes to promote sustainable consumption in Cyprus link to levers

Consumers should be at the centre of agrifood systems, from food research to food production and procurement, as well as in the food industry, environment and marketing. A conducive environment for sustainable consumption would further protect the right to safe and healthy food at affordable prices, equipping individuals with vital information to make informed food choices, while increasing transparency and consumers’ trust in agrifood systems that enable sustainable production patterns.