Consumers cannot be king in a sustainable world

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Global food production, Food supply, Agriculture, Food

Depending on the consumers to drive the food system down a more sustainable route is misplaced as government, food manufacturers and other industry players need to take the wheel, according to a new report.

The global food system is under pressure form the combined effects of population growth, the nutrition transition, energy, land, water, labour and climate change.

The result is constraints on food supply and if action is not taken, there is real potential for demand growth to outstrip increase in global food production, according to a new Chatham House report, called “Food Futures: Rethinking UK Strategy”​.

To counter this, the report said that the food system needs to reflect society’s choices as much as individual consumer preferences.

However, the authors stated that it is unclear whether the commercial sector can easily reconcile the conflicting goals of resilience, sustainability and competitiveness.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University and one of the report authors, told FoodNavigator.com: “The food system, whether you are a manufacturer or food service or retail, in the immediate short-term, is going to be one of considerable stresses and strains.

“We want to prevent a crisis.”

He said that the rhetoric of the last 30 years has been that consumers choose, even though this was not entirely the reality.

And though some consumers are driving the market towards sustainable behaviour patterns, reliance on them “seems misplaced”​ and public policy needs to engage with ‘choice editing’, according to the report.

It said: “Both industry and government need to acknowledge their responsibilities in helping consumers make informed choices.”

It added that the expansion of current labelling-based initiatives to address the resources impact of products would be difficult to communicate clearly, so measures such as ‘back-room’ selection of more sustainable products on behalf of the consumer (ie choice editing) “are considered to be a more fruitful route”​.

The report said: “The correct balance will need to be struck between industry and government ‘push’ (eg choice editing) and consumer ‘pull’ (demand for more sustainable products).”

Outside pressures

Global circumstances and the resulting pressures on supply are likely to combine to create higher food prices for the EU/UK.

This, for business, spells an increasingly challenging market-place, while for the consumer it is an end to the era of cheap food.

Therefore the report concluded that the food supply needs to reflect the true cost of resources and incorporate wider social and ecological considerations with more food produced but much more sustainably.

It said: “A vital component of the process will be the incorporation of true supply costs, many of which are currently externalized – carbon and water being the obvious and major examples.

“Ingrained short-termism will need to evolve into a more strategic focus. That may be illustrated on one level as the difference between industry’s current ‘fire-fighting’ obsession with immediate public issues – quality of ingredients, obesity etc – and a corporate responsibility profile that reflects a longer-term understanding and management of the resource footprint.”

Related topics: Market Trends, Sustainability

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