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Historical food consumption declines and the role of alternative foods

  • Ferraro, Danielle M1, 1, 1, 2
  • Cottrell, Richard S1
  • Blasco, Gordon D1
  • Froehlich, Halley E1, 1
  • Halpern, Benjamin S1, 1
  • 1 University of California, United States of America
  • 2 Marine Science Institute, University of California, United States of America
Published Article
Environmental Research Letters
IOP Publishing
Publication Date
Dec 30, 2021
DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac4072
  • Letter


The adoption of sustainable alternative foods could potentially reduce the environmental burden of human food production if it can reduce demand for products with higher environmental impact. However, there is little empirical evidence for how frequent food consumption declines are when alternative foods are introduced, limiting our knowledge of the potential for such introductions to drive food system transformations. Using 53 years of food supply data for 99 crop, livestock, and seafood commodities in 159 countries, we use regression analyses on 12 883 time series—each representing a single country-commodity pair—to detect sustained declines in apparent national food consumption, as well as corresponding consumption increases of other food commodities. First, we show that sustained declines in the consumption of any food item are rare, occurring in 9.6% of time series. Where declines are present, they most frequently occur in traditional plant-based staples, e.g. starchy roots, and are larger compared to animal-source foods, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where much of the future increase in food demand is expected to occur. Second, although declines were rare, we found national production rather than trade was identified as the most common proximate driver of declines in consumption, suggesting that shifts in diets have the potential to translate into reduced environmental impacts from food production. Third, we found consumption increases were nearly twice as common as declines, but only 8% of declines (from within 4% of total time series) occurred parallel to incline events within the same food group, suggesting limited interchangeability. An examination of case studies suggests that alternative foods can facilitate food system transitions, but strong relative disadvantages for existing foods across aspects of technology, markets, policy and culture need to exist in parallel to support for alternative foods across the same factors. Where existing foods are already produced in highly efficient systems, a lack of systematic disadvantage may provide a barrier to alternative foods driving change.

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