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By Roger Highfield on

Can we feed the world without wrecking it?

A milestone international survey of public attitudes conducted for the museum reveals concern about food waste but widespread lack of understanding about the link between food production and climate change. Roger Highfield, Science Director, reports.

As the planet reels from the effects of climate change and extreme weather, its burgeoning human population is placing unsustainable pressure on the Earth’s life support systems.

How can we feed the world without accelerating damaging climate change, when the current global population of 7.6 billion (of which 821 million are undernourished) is expected to soar to almost 10 billion in 2050?

A recent report Sustainable food: public attitudes and engagement in the UK, Brazil and India reveals relatively low awareness that around one third of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the food system.

The report was commissioned by the Science Museum Group, with a new gallery of food and farming in mind, to find ways to engage as wide an audience as possible and help empower them too.

Research for the report was carried out by Flow Associates, with Flow India and People’s Palace Projects do Brasil,  supported by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, with the help of two long-standing museum partners — the National Council of Science Museums in India and the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro. The study is based on the responses of1604 people from across the UK, India and Brazil (300 in-depth and another 1304 in a broad survey).

Indian survey respondents had the widest range of concerns about the climate, with 34% mentioning specific issues such as climate refugees, Delhi pollution and food waste. In Brazil the top category was ‘politics and industry’, with 28% of comments about the role of these sectors in environmental harm. In the UK the top category was ‘nature’ and the ‘more-than human world’ at 29%.

More positively, the research revealed an eagerness to learn more about the solutions to the challenge of sustainable food as the race is on for the science, technology and consumer choices that will enable food to be produced more efficiently and in a way that is kinder to the environment.

Mural of the agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull demonstrating his seed drill to rowcrop farm workers
Mural of the agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull (1674-1740), demonstrating his seed drill to rowcrop farm workers by A R Thomson, 1955. Oil on canvas.

Here museums and public engagement professionals have an important role to play in informing the public around the issues, not least the Science Museum, which first opened its ground-breaking agriculture galleries in 1951.

‘We realised we needed to gain a better insight into public attitudes about sustainable food, which would help us and other museums around the world engage audiences with the issues,’ explained the Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, Sir Ian Blatchford.

Concerned but Disempowered

The good news is that our survey suggests there is a huge appetite for this subject. The responses revealed a very high level of interest in food issues, and even higher concern about the environment amongst all 1304 survey respondents, with the majority self-scoring 7 or above on a scale of 1 to 10 (85% for interest in food, 89% for concern about the environment).

Ending waste is important to all audiences. Food waste and plastic waste were top of mind in the three countries as major problems in the food system, with food waste selected by 51% of all survey respondents as one of their top 5 issues, while plastics and packaging was selected by 43%.

When asked which one issue was most important, Indian respondents were most likely to select medium term issues relating to community and society (38%) such as pollution affecting health, hunger and population, while Brazil and UK respondents were most likely to select long term issues relating to ecosystems and climate (44% and 46% respectively) such as deforestation, pesticides and climate change affecting food.

However, the survey revealed that in all three countries people felt that, though knowledgeable about some food sustainability issues, they did not feel able, informed or motivated enough to take effective action on them. All want change and yet many feel disempowered.

Focusing on Food Issues

We were able to drill down into attitudes in Brazil, India and the UK with the help of the focus groups. Although knowledgeable about some factors, conversations revealed that awareness of causes and potential increases in food insecurity is fairly low.

For example, while people often mentioned a desire to reduce meat and dairy consumption, there was relatively low scientific awareness of the benefits.

Ignorance has an impact because the more confused people are, the less motivated they feel to change their own food practices, and the less agency they feel they have to effect change to global food systems.

There is also a limit to how far they are prepared to go to eat sustainably. People are uneasy about how our eating habits will need to adapt in the future — respondents weren’t keen to see bugs or lab-grown meat on their menus.

Crickets being raised for human consumption. Credit Wikipedia.

After discussing solutions, awareness about links between the food system and climate change was increased but initially this was not raised by many in the focus groups. This could be related to psychological tendencies to avoid or minimise climate change, and to perceive it as distant in time and geography.

Regenerative farming, community-supported farming and greener aquaculture were popular solutions, out of the nine the researchers suggested, although people wanted to know more about their benefits and how they might support them.

From the choice of nine solutions, eating insects, lab-grown meat and genetically modified organisms were the least popular across the three countries, as they raised more challenges about uncertain benefits, costs and ethics.

When it comes to how to engage audiences, documentaries play an important role, such as Cowspiracy and Blue Planet. But when it comes to traditional museum exhibits, there are challenges and in all three countries we found a hunger for more hands-on, even ‘tongues-on’ experiences, that might connect people and ideas in radical ways.

There were many creative suggestions that museums be transformed into greenhouses, laboratories or restaurants. For some, particularly in the UK and India, museums were seen as having potential to become more sensory and less static to sufficiently to engage visitors on food sustainability. Others, particularly professionals, and adults in Brazil, wanted to see more outreach in places where food is produced and consumed.

Comparing the UK, India and Brazil

Using three ‘lenses’ to study public attitudes — Self & Family; Society & Community; and Ecosystems & Climate — the researchers examined the differences between people in Brazil, the UK and India.

As one example people in India and Brazil reflected a focus on Society & Community, compared to the UK where the focus was more often divided between Self & Family or Ecosystems & Climate.

A plethora of other insights emerged: in Brazil, people feel the least motivated to make changes on a personal level, with 29% feeling that changes must be made by those in power; those in India were most likely to mention initiatives to educate people for societal change; those in the UK were the most likely to focus on making small step changes as consumers.

In Brazil and somewhat in India, people talked of needing to reconnect to family roots, culinary traditions and ancestry of native peoples. Both audiences expressed empathy for those living in poverty, and concern for human rights to access nutritious food (33% of surveyed respondent In Brazil and 24% of those surveyed in India).

In the UK, themes such as either household budgets or children’s needs (coded in relation to ‘Self & Family’), or nature disconnection, animal welfare and global food transportation (coded as ‘Ecosystems & Climate’) were raised more often. Conversations revealed a yearning desire for a greater sense of community and local society-based solutions, but these weren’t top of mind.

A red combine harvester
Massey-Fergusson Type 780 combine harvester, 1953-1962. Made by Massey Ferguson at their factory in Kilmarnock, Scotland, this machine is of a generation of combines which brought mechanised cereal harvesting to farmers in Britain and throughout the world.

When it comes to solutions, Brazilians were more likely than in the other countries to favour, and know about, solutions that provide alternatives to industrial land-grabbing and deforestation, and solutions that support communities to grow food fairly and sustainably.

In India, all audiences surveyed (adults, families, teachers and students) were more likely than those in Brazil and UK to focus on household choices and practices that reduce waste, provide good nutrition, and that increase demand and supply of a diversity of unprocessed, plant-based foods. More than half — 57% — were motivated by self, family and a focus on food consumption, with ‘food as basic need’ and ‘food for nutrition’ being the most popular themes that emerged.

In the UK focus groups, all audiences, but particularly adults, included people that challenged solutions that might be unpopular or that might need too much state intervention.

The central take home message of the research is that engaging people with food has great potential to empower people to take action on bigger issues of environmental and social justice.

Urgent Need for Action

Since the research was commissioned, this report has, if anything, become more relevant given incidents that have underlined how social inequality, extreme weather and climate change are closely interlinked.

In July alone, there were flash floods in London, a study published by The Lancet Planetary Health journal concluded that more than five million extra deaths a year — including 52,000 in the UK — can be attributed to abnormal hot and cold temperatures, while Brazil experienced a unusual cold snap at the heart of its coffee belt.

This research also comes at a critical juncture in climate discussions, as the UK prepares to host the 26th global climate summit — called COP (‘Conference of the Parties’) — in Glasgow at which the future direction of global efforts to avert the climate crisis will be determined.


The Science Museum Group would like to thank the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the research team:

  • Flow Associates, which designed the research and synthesised findings from three countries: Alex Flowers, Bridget McKenzie, Susanne Buck and Ruth Colmer
  • Flow India, consultation of Indian audiences: Arundhati Mitter, Shailja Khati, Sumaiya Khan, Preeti Sharma, Waseem Saifi.
  • People’s Palace Projects, consultation of Brazilian audiences: Thiago Jesus (PPP, Queen Mary University of London), Miriam Krenzinger, Natalia Guindani, Giulia Luz, Lolita Beretta, Gracyelle Costa and Mayra Mota (PPP do Brasil).
  • The BBSRC – Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – also provided invaluable support for an earlier phase of research.