Sustainable Nutrition With Digital Help?

Expedition: Nachhaltige Ernährung im Alltag
Project Name: PLATEFORMS

The Scientists Suse Brettin and Sandra Čajić investigate how sustainable food practices and family division of labor at home are changing as a result of digital tools and new distribution channels. They looked for the international study "PLATEFORMS," into shopping baskets, cooking pots and even worm boxes at 40 Berlin households.

Obstabteilung eines Supermarktes; Foto: Falk Weiß

Scenes like this probably play out every day and in many supermarkets: Two people want to shop sustainably. But in front of the vegetable shelf, the difficult question arises: What is actually sustainable when the choice consists of regional organic cucumbers in foil and unpackaged cucumbers from conventional cultivation in southern Europe. Suse Brettin and Sandra Čajić have frequently heard about such decision-making difficulties and the resulting "expedient sustainability" in the past two years. The two researchers from the Department of Gender and Globalization at the Albrecht Daniel Thaer-Institut für Agrar- und Gartenbauwissenschaften (Albrecht Daniel Thaer Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences) interviewed Berlin:ers from 40 households. And often heard what challenges the decision to eat more sustainably brings with it in everyday life. "Many interviewees told us that they are dissatisfied with their narrow scope of action - in the face of market-based supply and their own limited budget of time, finances, knowledge and skills."

Mostly Women are Concerned about Sustainable Nutrition

There is a demand for more direct and transparent ways to buy sustainably; this market is on the move, says Suse Brettin: "In recent years, many services have emerged that offer consumers alternative ways to get their food: They can order online, use food-sharing apps, they can garden cooperatively, subscribe to vegetable boxes, or shop in unpackaged stores." In May 2018, this observation was the starting point for the study "Potentials of Food Promotion Platforms to Promote Sustainable Food Practices (PLATEFORMS)" under the European co-funding network SUSFOOD2. It aims to find out how the new offerings change the food practices of people who want to eat sustainably. In parallel to the scientists at Humboldt-Universität, project partners at universities in Sweden, Ireland, Italy and Norway are researching the same topic.

In Berlin Suse Brettin and Sandra Čajić paid additional attention to gender aspects. Čajić says that the feedback from their search for interview partners already allowed them to draw conclusions about the division of labor in the household: "In forty households, we spoke with only ten men. It became clear that the initiative to use a particular platform often comes from women." Suse Brettin adds, "Time budget studies show that it is still women who do most of the care work. It then follows that it is also mostly women who think about how nutrition can be more sustainable and healthier."

Bio-Label im Supermarkt; Foto: Falk Weiß

Balcony Compost

Theconcern for the environment, she says, is a key factor in using the new platforms. Suse Brettin says, "Many of our interviewees also have a sociopolitical aspiration. They are very specifically looking for supply channels where they can have the say and act in solidarity." The researchers encountered cooperative action again and again: in the urban gardens, where even tomatoes were left over at the end of the day because everyone only took what was needed. At the "Marktschwärmer" stand, where some customers supported farmers financially in times of drought. Or in the digital network of organic box subscribers, who first stood haphazardly in front of a pile of salsify in the season and then searched together for recipes.

In qualitative interviews, the researchers gained an insight into all the decision-making processes surrounding nutrition - from planning purchases to cooking and disposal. They were amazed at the sophisticated systems they encountered. Sandra Čajić says, "If you regularly shop at the unpackaged supermarket, for example, you often have paper bags of all sizes in the kitchen and recycled jars labeled with the weight so you can deduct it directly when you weigh it." Some interviewees held their laptop in the worm bin during the Zoom-interview: "The plants on the terrace were then fertilized with the compost they produced themselves. It was a real cycle." The researchers were surprised that a quarter of the households interviewed composted in the middle of the city - sometimes in the basement, sometimes on the balcony.

Supermarkt; Foto: Falk Weiß

Not Sustainable Enough?

Above all, planning and selecting products make it easier to deal with food sustainably. This is how Sandra Čajić summarizes the results: "It's interesting that digital platforms make the division of labor fairer, at least in this step. Couples or families like to choose together." In other offerings, people even rely entirely on what the farm delivers. However, this also requires more research and creativity in the preparation, he says. "Then we're back to gendered aspects," says Suse Brettin: "Who can cook in the family? Who knows about seasonality and regionality? Who has time to take care of it? Or from whom is this time commitment demanded and from whom not?"

Time and again, the researchers report, interview partners have expressed, that despite a great deal of effort and all the care they take, they always have the feeling that they don't live sustainably enough. "Society - fortunately - discusses sustainable consumption, meat avoidance, regional and seasonal food very intensively," says Suse Brettin. "But because of that, many women feel a big entitlement weighing on them." A demand that cannot be met by individualized purchasing decisions alone, she says. Sustainable nutrition, she says, must become a good for society as a whole, for which political framework conditions must be created. The international consortium of "PLATEFORMS" will therefore formulate political recommendations for action. Among other things, an in-depth study is planned in which producers will also report on their experiences with the new distribution channels. Suse Brettin summarizes: "Ideas such as direct marketing have of course existed for some time, but it is helpful to establish empirically that they are bearing fruit and are viewed positively. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, the existing projects and structures just need to be promoted and strengthened."

Durcheinander im Supermarktregal; Foto: Falk Weiß


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