Changing climate, changing behaviours

An interview with Laura O'Keefe.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

As a social scientist looking at the response to the very real threat to our species posed by climate change, these famously misquoted words of Charles Darwin prompt the following question:

Faced with a world transformed by an increase in extreme weather events or by a shift to a life without carbon, just how responsive will we be to change?

For many of us, following the same weekly routine provides an important sense of stability and comfort, particularly within the increasingly unpredictable and uncertain world in which we live.

Nowhere is this attachment to routine more evident than in our eating habits.

As part of the project team that produced the “What’s Cooking?” report, my work package looked at a some of the key elements of the scenarios relating to cooking and eating to understand how UK families would react if they were forced to change those habits.

Interestingly, the people we surveyed were, on the whole, happy to change.

Take meat, for example.

As a nation of meat eaters (all but 2 per cent of the population are carnivores, according to the latest Government figures), it’s not something we’re likely to be keen to give up.

Which is a problem, because every portion of meat leaves a sizeable carbon footprint behind it.

"every portion of meat leaves a sizeable carbon footprint behind it"

We asked our research focus groups how they would feel about replacing the meat in their diets with a low-carbon alternative grown in a laboratory.

The response was surprising.

Despite the apparent popularity of organic and free-range farm produce, most participants said that in the future they would be happy eating food that was grown in an artificial environment.

"most participants said that in the future they would be happy eating food that was grown in an artificial environment"

They believed this “meat” could be ‘purer’ than conventional meat and that it could even be a healthier alternative if vitamins and omega oils were added during production. It also offered an attractive option for the vegetarian focus group participants as no animals would need to be killed to produce it.

Interestingly, these same studies also showed that most women did not believe that the men in their lives would be happy to eat less meat. Results from our male focus groups proved otherwise.

So do I think we are capable of changing our behaviours to protect future generations against the threat of dangerous climate change?

Time will tell, but my research has given me reason to hope!

As a Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Dr Laura O’Keefe contributed to a comprehensive study on how the UK food system might adapt to or help mitigate against the impacts of climate change, which culminated in the “What’s Cooking?” report published in 2012. She is currently Project Manager of the EPSRC funded SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, which is also based at the University of Manchester.

Q & A

What is your specific field of research?

I’m currently working as a Project Manager at the SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub so I’m not directly involved in research at the moment, but my background is in social science. I did my PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, looking at consumer behaviours in different European Union countries in response to food scares and I was fortunate to be able to continue that type of work with the Tyndall Centre on the “What’s Cooking?” project. It gave me the opportunity to continue to study how people interact with food.

Why was the University of Manchester the right place for your research?

After my PhD, I wanted to work in an inter-disciplinary group that was focused on food research. I think it’s just such a fascinating topic as a social scientist. So when a job came up researching the interactions between food and climate change at the Tyndall Centre here at the University of Manchester, I leapt at the chance! The Tyndall Centre may be based within the School of Mechanical Engineering, but it’s home to such a wide range of skills and disciplines.

Why is food such an important issue at this point in time?

The food industry will be affected by climate change more than any other sector. Living in the UK, some people might think a temperature rise of a few degrees would be a good thing - trust me, I’m from Aberdeen so I can understand that - but a change in temperature will mean more extreme and more unpredictable weather conditions that will make it harder to grow certain types of food, to raise animals or to catch fish.

How has your research helped meet this challenge?

The What’s Cooking study sought to explore how the UK food system could develop and change in response to the impact of both extreme climate events and significant carbon emission reductions. We spoke to representatives from across the whole food system, including farmers, retailers, policy makers and consumers. We looked at a series of potential future scenarios to understand what people thought about the future of the food industry and how they and their families would react to change. Among the issues we considered were a significant reduction in the amount of meat in diets, meal replacement tablets, growing meat in a laboratory and replacing kitchens in all new-build accommodation with communal eating houses. Although it is clear that the benefits of radical change will need to be properly communicated, we concluded that the food industry had the power and the influence to make positive changes to adapt to and mitigate against the impacts of dangerous climate change.

How important is collaboration?

It’s very important. To create our scenarios we ran three workshops with a number of key stakeholders, including Tesco, the Co-op, DEFRA, local policy makers, Forum for the Future, farmer associations and other universities. The outputs of our research were very much a collaboration between academia and industry.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

From a research point of view, I’m a big fan of inter-disciplinary projects like Food@ Manchester. Food research involves lots of different disciplines and it’s exciting to see so much collaboration and cross-fertilisation.

On a broader level, I believe that people are willing to change. Consumers are often written off as obstacles to change, but our research shows that they just need better and clearer information at the right stages of the process.

And what are you most concerned about?

Changing the way we produce and sell and buy food is such a massive task, with so many different people involved, it could be easy for certain parties to pass the buck and wait for others to make changes.

I’m also concerned about the lack of clarity for the consumer - too often there are mixed messages.

By Bill Bows in interview with Laura O'Keefe.