‘Each of us has a role’: How can consumers support a food system fix?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

‘Each of us has a role’: How can consumers support a food system fix?

Related tags Sustainability Consumers

What we eat is contributing to some of the greatest challenges facing the world, from climate change to global health crises. Can a shift in consumption also be part of the solution?

According to the World Health Organisation, two billion adults worldwide are overweight. Of these, 650 million are considered to be affected by obesity. A recent study from the University of Michigan – and published in the journal Nature Food​ – suggests that eating a single hotdog could take 36 minutes off your life, while choosing to eat a serving of nuts instead could help you gain 26 minutes of extra healthy life. 

Simone Pedrazzini, director of Quantis Italy, held this research up as just one example of a broken food system and the negative impact of Western diets on human health. “This resonates with me because a number of metrics are needed but... the point is to choose better foods,”​ he told an Independent Dialog organised by Quantis and linked to the UN Food Systems Summit yesterday.

And, of course, how we eat in the Global North is just one part of the picture. Around the world, 821 million people do not have enough food live an active, healthy life. One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, a burden that falls disproportionately on developing economies. Today, 20 million people are at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria.

Pedrazzini also highlighted the impact that the food system has on climate, being responsible for 28% of global emissions. The ‘key hotspot’, he suggested, is agriculture which has the most impact. “According to the different lifecycle stages we can see everyone has a role and we need to reduce this impact from soil to plate… Each of us has the role to define what is relevant and what are the main priorities,​” the sustainability consultant noted.

Food and the consumer of the future

Speaking at the same event, Helena Leurent, Director General of Consumers International, claimed that consumers need to be a part of this change.

“There is a new place for consumers to play a part in building a sustainable, fair, inclusive and safe marketplace,”​ the consumer advocate said. “We need consumers to make that shift so there is a tipping point in the economy… In the future the role of the consumer is going to be quite different, the consumer is going to have more agency.”

GettyImages-Motortion millenial snack eating future
Consumers of the future will have 'more agency' / Pic: GettyImages-Motortion

As part of the work Consumers International is doing with the UN Food System Summit, research has been conducted to identify the priorities of the ‘future consumer’ globally.

Laurent detailed six key areas: access to food (‘we have to consider food affordability’); food safety (‘one of the most important issues to work on’); health (‘getting serious about… salt, sugars, trans fats [and] the way we could use levers of fiscal policy… and [regulate] marketing practices’); sustainability and regenerative (‘the ways in which we can do that [include] getting to grips with traceability‘); awareness (which ‘comes in labelling, clear transparent and harmonised information front of pack’); and digital (‘because so many of us have shifted online, [away from] the protections we have in traditional markets’).

But while she insisted consumers want a more sustainable and equitable food system, she conceded that not everyone finds it easy to make positive changes in their own lives. Concern about the economy and rising food prices are a 'great concern' for people today, she noted, observing that it isn't always easy for consumers to translate good intentions into action. 

“There is a bigger awareness of the need for a sustainable lifestyle. What often happens is [people get stuck at] ‘how can I achieve that?’ It can be very complicated... there is a lot of work to be done to make that intent go to action. Our role is to not wait for people to act but help them express that intent.”

That intent, she argued, offers the food industry a rich stream of innovation opportunity.

“This is a source of innovation, as consumer advocates we are excited to build bridges and look at the business models that are underpinned by consumer principles and help smallholder farmers.

“We have so much to do and yet the tools are at our fingertips. Consumers can look forward to a very different form of marketplace.”

Too Good To Go: A case study in reimagining the marketplace

Too Good To Go
Image source: Too Good To Go

Food waste app, Too Good To Go, stands as an example of how innovation can answer a sustainability challenge and be turned into a business opportunity​ that contributes to this ‘very different marketplace’.

With one-third of the food produced today wasted, this is an area where issues from climate impact to access, affordability and hunger overlap.

Too Good To Go acts as an intermediary between food distributors and consumers, allowing supermarkets – for instance – to alert consumers when they have surplus food being sold at a discount, essentially connecting over-supply with demand. 

The firm’s Global Impact Director Philippe Schuler believes that this kind of innovation will be key to reducing the strain the food system places on the planet and people.

“We are in the middle of a climate crisis; greenhouse gas emissions continue to go up... It is about finding out how can we mitigate and adapt to the crisis,”​ he said.

Schuler believes that cutting food waste can help feed the global population without the need to increase production levels. The impact director also stressed that food waste needs to be looked at in terms of the environmental, social and economic implications of the resources that are lost.

“When we are wasting food, we are wasting money and valuable resources. When you are looking at an apple... you have the land, the labour, the sweat, the time, the energy, the pesticides and fertilisers, the fuel to transport it, the water, the electricity… When we waste the apple all of these resources are wasted in vain.”

The mission-based company is also collaborating with food majors including Unilever​ and Danone to reimagine date labels, which it has identified as a major cause of food waste in the home.

“In order to change the food system and help reduce food waste across society... you need to have a broad systemic view. It is all about collaboration, partnerships, fighting this together,”​ Schuler told the event.

“Food waste is a massive issue. It is not enough to pinpoint supermarkets as the one responsible. We all have a role to play, even in our homes. We want to engage with as many players as possible, whether its local and regional governments businesses or consumers.”

Food waste is just one of the subjects that will come under the microscope at our upcoming event, Climate Smart Food​​​​​​​. We'll be discussing a variety of issues, from sustainable sourcing and consumption to the food and ag tech that will support systems transformation.

With the food system contributing around one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions today, it is clear that business-as-usual is not an option. So what needs to change if we are to transition towards truly sustainable nutrition? Join us to find out. 

To register for free, click HERE​​​​​​, or to view details of our full programme, click HERE​​​​​​. 

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