Childhood nature experiences lead to sustainable food choices in adulthood

Molinario, E., Lorenzi, C., Bartoccioni, F., Perucchini, P., Bobeth, S., Colléony, A., et al. (2020). From childhood nature experiences to adult pro-environmental behaviors: An explanatory model of sustainable food consumption. Environmental Education Research, 26, 1137 - 1163.

Biodiversity is an important factor in determining whether or not a food source is considered sustainable. Locally made food products are considered more biodiversity-friendly than food products with long production chains. Other biodiversity-friendly farming practices include cultivating native plants and following sustainable fishing practices. Because food consumption has a heavy impact on the environment, this study aimed to understand the social-psychological factors that lead adults to make more sustainable food choices. In particular, the authors focused on how positive childhood experiences in nature might lead to environmental self-identity and environmental behaviors in adulthood, including behaviors related to food consumption.

The authors in this study developed and tested a theoretical model for how childhood experiences might shape pro-environmental behavior around food. They hypothesized that a variety of nature experiences, as well as norms around the environment, would interact to help shape biospheric values and connection to nature as children grew up. In turn, values and connection would help shape environmental self-identity, or the degree to which one sees themselves as an environmentally friendly person who engages in pro-environmental behaviors. This would then encourage pro-environmental behaviors in adulthood, given a baseline knowledge around the environmental impacts of food consumption.

To test the model, the authors first conducted a pilot study with 81 members of the general public in Sardinia, Italy. Participants were approached in public spaces and asked to complete a questionnaire. The questionnaire measured: 1) childhood nature experiences, 2) influence of friends or family on childhood nature experiences, 3) significant or emotional childhood nature experiences, such as having a favorite natural place or witnessing an animal die, 4)personal values related to nature, 5) environmental self-identity, 6) knowledge of fruit and fruit sustainability, and 7) consumer ability to make sustainable fruit choices. After the analysis of this pilot study proved to show a reliable relationship between these 7 factors, two separate studies were conducted to further explore adults' sustainable food choices.

These two studies were conducted using the same survey from the pilot study. The primary objective was to test whether childhood nature experiences led to connection to nature, pro-environmental values, and an environmental self-identity in adults. Both studies also tested whether an increased number of childhood experiences led to an increase in objective knowledge about sustainability. Study 1 surveyed 159 college students in Italy and assessed sustainable fruit choice knowledge by consumers based on locality, seasonality, and diversity. Study 2 surveyed 151 people of the general public in Italy, this time with questions about fish and seafood consumption. Surveys were analyzed and coded to obtain results..

Results from Study 1 showed that environmental self-identity, connection to nature, and nature-related values were significantly related to engagement in pro-environmental behaviors. In fact, the higher the above-mentioned factors, the greater the engagement. Additionally, significant or emotional childhood experiences were linked to sustainable adult behaviors, while ordinary childhood experiences were linked to having more knowledge about sustainability. Most notably, the higher the environmental identity, the more likely the adult was to make sustainable fruit choices. Results from Study 2 yielded similar results, environmental self-identity, connection to nature, and nature-related values were predictors of sustainable fish and seafood choices. However, in Study 2, no childhood experiences, ordinary or significant, correlated to having sustainability knowledge. Both of these studies support the general psychological connection between childhood nature experiences and adulthood sustainable food choices. In each study, early exposure to nature in childhood was found to be key to developing these important adulthood traits, and ordinary and extraordinary events both play a role in developing pro-environmental adult lifestyles.

The authors acknowledged the limitation that self-evaluating childhood experiences as an adult may not be as reliable as surveying children and following up with them as adults, as well as the bias of self-evaluation in general. Furthermore, Study 1 surveyed mainly female, college-aged students thus reducing the generalizability of the results to a larger public. Finally, the survey questions regarding nature experiences only included land-based spaces, thus potentially affecting the results of Study 2, which focused on marine-related sustainability.

Since childhood experiences influence adult behavior, the authors recommend that more be done by parents, schools, and environmental educators to create positive interactions between children and the outdoors. Suggestions include making the outdoors more accessible through walkways or public transport and supplementing a lack of local nature with environmental media and literature. Nature experiences with a meaningful person, especially a trusted adult, are essential for modelling social norms with nature. The authors also suggest including adults in environmental programs as well as kids.

The Bottom Line

<p>Making sustainable food choices is essential to the longevity and biodiversity of our planet. It is important to understand the psychological factors instilled in children that prolong pro-environmental behaviors into adulthood. This article discussed a series of studies conducted in Italy to create and explore a theoretical model for how childhood experiences might shape pro-environmental behavior around food. Across a pilot study and two subsequent studies, researchers surveyed a total of 391 participants selected from the general public and a college. All studies found that environmental self-identity, connection to nature, and nature-related values correlate positively with engagement in pro-environmental behaviors. Specifically, childhood experiences in nature were linked to sustainable adult behaviors. The authors recommend that parents and educators should create and advocate for the access and inclusivity that will allow all children to participate in nature experiences.</p>

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