The Future of Food: What Do Consumers Want?

The Food Standards Agency’s findings on THE people’s vision for 2050 will both inspire and alarm the industry.

What might the world’s food industry look like in 2050? Businesses, politicians and environmentalists all have their own visions. Some of them align; some of them don’t. But what do consumers think? The Food Standards Agency has had a go at finding out.

What it has come up with is much more than a list of things that are on people’s minds in relation to what they eat (price, animal welfare, health, climate change and the like). Consumers “spent a whole day telling us what they wanted”, the FSA’s chief scientific adviser, Guy Poppy, said about the workshops.

The findings are intriguing, concerning and inspiring to varying degrees. Here’s a snapshot.

A nation of worriers

People worry about a loss of connection with where their food comes from. Food companies may have thought that, in convenience foods, year-round availability, food-to-go innovation and online grocery shopping, they were offering customers exactly what they wanted. And to a certain extent they have – people are time-poor and technologically rich.

But behind the lifestyle benefits these innovations have created, there is a niggle: will we lose a way of relating to food that we enjoy, and part of how we relate to each other as people? The report notes that “real concerns and anxieties about how we might relate to food in the future” surfaced during the more detailed discussions. Squaring that particular circle will be a headache.

Stick with labelling

That health messages are gaining traction also comes through in the FSA study. The food industry was “widely praised” for improving the clarity of food labels in areas such as allergens, fat, salt, sugar and additives. Good news indeed. But this access to information shouldn’t end with nutrition.

As participants began to understand more about the complexities of global supply chains – deforestation to produce palm oil, water scarcity in regions that supply supermarkets with year-round exotic fruits and so on – they wanted the food industry to provide more information on the global environmental effects of food production.

Empowered but not trusting

Clear labelling gave consumers the confidence to “make empowered choices about their food – and reassured them that the food industry was being encouraged to act in consumers’ interest”, the FSA said. This isn’t always the case, though. Asked who had the most influence in the supply chain, respondents said the market, which in turn led to concerns about the power of the biggest food brands. Consumers had the least influence, with government sandwiched in between.

But when it comes to who they trust, that hierarchy is flipped on its head. The government needs to step in and step up, was the conclusion: “People hoped that government would push harder to support public interests via education and information support, but also intervention in marketing and retailing that promoted unhealthy or wasteful food choices.”

Green light for red tape

Taxes – which have been floated for carbon and introduced on sugar – should remain on the table, the research suggested. The government’s role should be to “make it harder to be unhealthy”, said one respondent.

This chimes with rumblings from parts of the food industry, both in terms of health and environmental policies. Businesses are looking to the government to help them tackle the complex issues of food security, for example. “Where there is not a strong business case, legislate us, so that we are forced to perform, because voluntary standards can only get us so far,” was the impression given by industry leaders in one recent report.

Two-tier society

The environment secretary, Liz Truss, said the promises made to the food industry won the election for her party. However, the Conservative manifesto (and probably the 25-Year Food and Farming Plan) presents the economics of food, with little or no thought for the environmental impacts and implications. Sustainable food may therefore remain on the sidelines until 2020.

If the FSA’s findings are anything to go by, this won’t wash with the environmentally informed and corporate-sceptical consumer of the future. “Participants hope that government and regulators will play a more visible role in the future of food, to ensure that their interests are protected in a more complex world,” the authors concluded.

If not, then a “two-tier” society could emerge, “where healthy and less processed foods are increasingly a luxury, and people who are more financially pressured relying more on convenience foods”. Some would argue that it’s here already.

Note: This is an abridged version of an article published on www.tifsip.org on March 15th 2016. It has been published here with permission.

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