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Future-proofing our food for a healthier and sustainable world
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Future-proofing our food for a healthier and sustainable world

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Transparency, traceability and transformation are vital to increase trust throughout our food system and to empower healthier and more sustainable food choices.

The global population is set to reach 10 billion people by 2050. Around the world, we are striving to meet the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together, we are working to create a healthier and more sustainable world.

Our food systems are integral to realising these aims. We currently face many demographic, environmental and health issues that affect the safety, integrity and future of our food systems.

“As the global population moves towards 10 billion by 2050, we need innovative technologies and collaborative approaches from farm to fork to deliver accessible and healthy food products in a sustainable way,” ​explains Professor Klaus Grunert, Department of Management at Aarhus University.

As the world strives to stand up and create genuine change, the food industry is turning to innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration to provide meaningful answers. Partnerships, funding, education and engagement seek to drive forward new ideas.

“Helping to build trust between consumers and the food sector is critical for us to work together to improve food for everyone,”​ advises Saskia Nuijten, Director of Communication and Public Engagement at EIT Food.

Increase in Food Trust

European food innovation initiative, EIT Food, created by the European Institute for Innovation & Technology (EIT) has released its first Trust Report on the levels of consumer trust in our food system and confidence in our food products.

The newly-published study, which surveyed 19,800 consumers across 18 European countries, reveals that trust in the food industry increased throughout 2020 for all parts of the sector. Overall gains of between 3% and 8% indicate the clear improvements in trust levels, concerning the food system’s key trust criteria of competency, care and openness.

Variations in trust exist among key areas of the food system

In Europe, the first-of-its-kind EIT Food Trust Report also reveals startling contrasts between key industry players: farmers, retailers, government agencies and manufacturers.

For a trusted, future-fit food system, all areas need to commit to transparency, openness and honesty by sharing relevant information. Equally, they need to listen to people and act in their best interests by demonstrating their commitment to creating change in caring and proactive ways.

1. Farmers are trusted the most

Farmers hold the highest levels of public trust, with 67% of European consumers reporting they trust farmers compared to just 13% that do not. Almost all consumers surveyed have high levels of trust in small farms.

Consumers hold a positive perception of farmers, hailing them as ‘the backbone of the food industry’ and ‘custodians of the land’. European consumers also consider farmers to have ‘hardworking’ and ‘passionate’ character traits, along with being ‘the underdog’, ‘exploited’ and ‘underpaid’. Collectively, these help to create consumer sympathy and trust.

Demonstrating the contrast between small versus large farms’ perceived trustworthiness, the survey indicates consumers have far less trust in larger ‘industrial’ farms. Concerns relating to intensive farming methods, animal welfare, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and the use of chemicals, pesticides and hormones – along with limited information on these activities – contribute to a lack of trust.

How can farmers increase trust?

Improving the approachability of their farms and getting closer to consumers is a key recommendation. Public-facing web pages and more opportunities to visit or meet at markets are actionable ways to improve trust.

Large farms need to prioritise transparency and honesty about their processes and practices to indicate what steps they are taking to minimise their negative impact on animals and the environment.

Consumers find ‘organic’ a very useful trust signpost for ethical, sustainable and healthy practices, the study found.

2. Retailers fair well, seeing the highest increase in overall trust

Retailers are the next most trusted group, with 53% of consumers expressing their trust and confidence in food retailers. Interestingly, trust in retailers has risen by 7% since 2018, the highest increase in overall trust. Consumer appreciation for uninterrupted food supply and accessibility during the Covid-19 pandemic may account for this growing trust.

Ambivalence dominates towards food retailers, however. Like farmers, consumers award more warmth, respect and trust to smaller and local retail stores than larger chains, with consumers branding the latter as ‘impersonal and sterile’.

Consumers typically hold larger retailers responsible for unnecessary and surplus waste and packaging. However, consumers recognise that retailers are investing in ways to meet demands and improve sustainability – perhaps indicative of why trust in retailers has seen the biggest rise.

How can retailers further increase consumer trust?

Retailers need to work with customers directly and listen to their needs. Adopting this approach will help to proactively support farmers and suppliers.

Developing fair trade, local, seasonal and organic product ranges, and better signposting of product provenance, are positive actions.

Less packaging, wasteful practices and offers, and affordable and healthy options, support calls for healthier and sustainable alternatives. Consumers want retailers to increase traceability and communicate what they won’t sell.

3. Government agencies

Governments lag behind on trust, with less than half of consumers (47%) stating they trust authorities, the study reveals. Perceptions of government integrity need to change to foster greater trust – particularly as 29% of consumers actively distrust governments.

Turning to the regulatory landscape in Europe, we see that while consumers believe fundamental regulations and basic legal competencies exist, boosting government authorities’ control and execution is paramount.

However, consumers question whether policymakers prioritise their agendas above those of citizens. Some consumers expressed that government agencies are ‘opaque’, even ‘absent’. Other consumer responses captured believe agencies can be too reactionary, rather than adopting roles as problem solvers or changemakers.

What do governments need to do to build more trust?

Consumers want authorities with more visibility, transparency and backbone that lead with humanity and leadership, rather than the interest-driven perceptions currently attributed to them. Governments will garner more trust by demonstrating their independence and by imposing harsher sanctions for rule breakers.

A proactive stance and action that pushes change across the food chain for the common good are required. To support this, governments need to offer or endorse consumer symbols to speed up decision making and help people make healthy food choices.

4. Manufacturers

Manufacturers fare the worst when it comes to consumer trust, with only 46% saying they have trust and confidence in food manufacturers. Consumers also have minimal empathy for manufacturers. Unlike farmers and retailers, where consumers have more trust for smaller providers, larger manufacturers tend to generate trust and confidence, particularly in relation to their integrity around safety and efficiency. Consumer insights reveal they consider these larger brands to be ‘image-conscious and play by the book’.

Many consumers, though, also interpret manufacturers’ actions as profit-driven, ‘ruthless’ and ‘exploitative’ of workers, suppliers and farmers. Authenticity, health and sustainability also come under question, with consumer concerns revolving around misleading claims, ​mass production of highly processed products with too many artificial additives and too much waste.

How can manufacturers improve trust levels?

Food manufacturers need to focus on communicating their ingredients, processes and additives. Consumers want accessible language that is easy to understand, such as clear and consistent packaging information.

Of equal importance is the agility to respond better to changing consumer expectations. Reducing nasties and improving food quality, innovation, sustainability and ethics are also vital. In particular, consumers value informative resources such as Nutriscore and want to receive better allergen information.

How can the entire food industry build trust?

Improving trust levels in our food system cannot be siloed to one particular part. We need to look at the entire system to provide actionable insights into how every player can increase consumer trust.

Openness and honesty, information sharing, listening to people’s concerns and acting in the public interest are decisive ways the whole industry can continue to shape our food system for the better, the EIT Food Trust Report reveals.

Closer relationships, smaller businesses, shorter value chains, national and local food provision, better labelling and transparency from farm to fork are specific actions those working in the food industry can take, EIT Food’s citizen participation forum highlights.

The future of trust in food

Consumer trust in our food system has taken a significant leap over the past year. Despite variations in trust levels, crucially, trust significantly outweighs lack of trust in all cases.

“The events of 2020 have shown many consumers how vital our food infrastructure is, ranging from keeping products on supermarket shelves to considering how our food production impacts the environment,” ​states Nuijten.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, as people rely on the food industry to maintain supplies and access to them, consumers value openness, transparency and care.

Commenting on the importance of trust in our food as we look to the post-Covid landscape, Nuijten adds: “As we look to our economic recovery in the coming year, helping to build trust between consumers and the food sector will be critical to improving food for everyone.”

“Ultimately, to create a future-fit food system, we must put our consumers at the centre of the development, production, distribution and promotion of food,” ​emphasises Nuijten.

In 2021 and beyond, the focus will now be on how we can sustain these increased levels of trust and improve upon them to achieve a healthier and more sustainable planet.

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