A new survey has revealed young people are more likely to view the food system as “unfair” to workers in developing nations, the natural environment and farm animals.
Research commissioned by the Food Ethics Council found that around half of 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK expressed concerns about food consumption and production.
The Populus poll interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,131 UK respondents. Participants were asked whether the food system was ‘fair’ to people in the UK, those working in food and farming in both the UK and developing countries, the natural environment and farm animals.
The survey reveals that while the majority of people, 54%, believe that the current food system is generally ‘fair’ to the UK population, 45% of people believe that the food system is ‘unfair’ to people working in food farming in developing countries.
Animal welfare and the natural environment are key concerns for younger generations. In total, 55% of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed believe that the food system is ‘unfair’ to farm animals, compared to just 32% of over 65s. Forty-six percent of 16 to 24-year-olds say it is ‘unfair’ to the natural environment whereas this figure falls to just 28% for those aged 55 to 64 and the over 65s this figure falls to 28%.
“Younger generations are particularly concerned by unfairness in our food system,” Dan Crossley executive director at the Food Ethics Council said.
Does it convert to purchase intent?
While Crossley notes the generational divide in attitudes to food production, he told FoodNavigator that this might not necessary mean that younger people change their consumption patterns.
“Many millennials are more vocally expressing their concern about unfairness in our food system. I’m not sure if the so-called ‘generational divide’ will impact on food buying patterns. What we are seeing though is younger generations increasingly demanding food systems based on different values and participating in the food system in new ways.”
Nevertheless, Crossley insisted that these attitudes represent an opportunity for food businesses and suggested there is significant scope for the food industry to build closer relationships with millennial consumers based on the adoption of more sustainable practices. “There is a moral imperative for food businesses to step up and ensure they are not treating others unfairly, whether that be people, animals or the planet. But this isn’t just about doing the bare minimum. Too big a proportion of the food on our shelves is still unfairly traded. There are huge opportunities for businesses to tap into the growing demand - particularly amongst millennials - for fairness to be embedded in the DNA of food and drink brands.”
Brexit concerns and government intervention
Echoing the generational divide laid bare by the Brexit referendum itself, the survey found younger people are more likely to believe the UK’s exit from the European Union will make the situation worse.
In particular, people under 35 are more likely to expect environmental protections and animal welfare to be eroded after Brexit. The results revealed 31% of 16 to 24-year-olds and 31% of 25 to 34-year-olds believe that the UK food system will be ‘less fair’ to farm animals after Brexit, compared to just 13% of those over 65. On the environment, 28% of 16 to 24-year-olds and 29% of 25 to 34-year-olds believe that the UK food system will be ‘less fair’ to the natural environment after Brexit, compared to 14% of those over 65.
Such concerns have been stoked by speculation that free trade agreements with countries like the US will include provisions allowing chlorine washed chicken or beef containing growth hormones onto the market. Crossley stressed that trade talks following Brexit must not be detrimental to food standards. “If the UK wants to be a global leader on food systems, we need to take responsibility for all our impacts, both within and beyond our borders. Food and farming cannot thrive in the long run, unless we have a just food system. In post-Brexit trade negotiations, the fairness of our food system must not be compromised.”
He also suggested that the government could intervene to promote fairness in the supply chain. Pointing to the Etas Generaux de l'Alimentation (EGA) consultation underway in France, Crossley said: “The UK government should follow the lead of the French government, who recently launched inquiries into fairness in food value chains, including scrutinising the share of value that goes to farmers.
“There is lots that the our governments can and should do – from ensuring that there is an independent adjudicator to tackle unfair trading practices all the way along food chains (not just direct suppliers of the major supermarkets) to ensuring power is not concentrated in too few hands. The government should strengthen the remit of the Competition and Markets Authority to ensure it considers the likely impacts of any merger on all key interest groups, not just ‘promoting competition for the benefit of consumers’.”
Stressing the global dimension of the issue, Crossley continued: “Many of the social and environmental impacts of the food we eat in the UK take place beyond our borders. We must take responsibility for all our food-related impacts, not pass the buck and expect the Global South, the planet and future generations to foot the bill.”