Public Opinion on Food Supply Technologies

Seemingly from 2014, and based mainly on Brook Lyndhurst research... Some bits entertainingly out-of-date (or, rather, seemingly from a quaint and distant past); some bits still on the money.

Perhaps the first thing we know about public opinion on food supply technologies is that the majority of the public will not understand the phrase ‘food supply technologies’.  Our research has consistently shown, for example[1], that ordinary householders, citizens and consumers do not partition or segment the world into the same convenient issues and labels preferred by policy-makers, researchers and technologists.  Instead, they rely on a mix of myths, messages and misunderstandings – collectively, a set of decision-making shortcuts or ‘heuristics’ – to navigate the high velocity complexities of modern food shopping, with consequences illustrated by the following selection:

animal welfare – in general the public wishes to believe that animals raised for the purposes of food production are cute, happy and free to run around[2].  European-led endeavours to raise awareness of animal welfare issues via labelling, for example, have failed because consumers simply do not want to know the details; they seem simply to want to be told (by the supermarket or brand, usually) that everything is fine. Whither consumer pressure for higher welfare standards?

GM – Brook Lyndhurst’s review for the FSA of public attitudes towards novel food technologies[3] revealed that opinions are ‘hard’ at either end of the spectrum, but the ‘malleable middle’ is large (and larger than is often supposed).  Presentations of the report’s findings in subsequent years to audiences of scientists and food technologists have consistently revealed a preference among such audiences to ‘tell’ the public, and their politicians, that they are ‘wrong’ to believe that GM is bad.  This serves only to alienate the public.  How can a dialogue between scientists (overly rational?) and the public (overly ignorant?) really take place?

irradiation – recent discussion (led by Matter for All[4]) on food irradiation highlights how public confusion (‘irradiation’ = ‘radiation’ = dangerous) can dominate an issue.  The debate may only superficially be about ‘food supply technologies’ – it may in fact need to be about ‘science’.

packaging – innovation in packaging technologies in recent years has reduced the negative environmental consequences of packaging, yet the visibility of the packaging in the household waste stream means that the public (typically) continues to believe the packaging is more of a problem than (say) food waste.  People, in general, know that food waste is a bad thing, so it is reasonable that they do not want to admit to themselves that they personally waste food; easier, instead, to blame the nasty packaging companies.

certification – the success of Fairtrade Foundation and Rainforest Alliance, among others, highlights the potential effectiveness of certification as a consumer shortcut; but what happens if/when a retailer introduces their own certification; and how long does it take for a certificate to gain credibility; and how resilient is a certificate to challenge, or attack?  Do consumers even notice?

labelling – even more generally, labelling has the potential to convey vital information, as it has to confuse and bewilder[5].   Is ‘competition’ among and between labels (and brands and certification sources) healthy or counter-productive? Should there be a harmonisation programme (as the European Commission advocates) or would wider distrust of things ‘European’ have an impact in the UK?

water and land – embedded water is an issue raised frequently by specialist activists; and Oxfam have recently raised the issue of ‘land grabs’ as being important.  Both, however, seem very difficult for the general public to grasp.  How should it be decided upon which to focus: what is objectively important (at the risk of being ignored); or what the public can digest (at the risk of focusing on the irrelevant)?

product – Brook Lyndhurst’s research has, over the years, consistently shown that the various issues raised in this list are not considered as an homogenous set – their salience varies from product to product.  The public understands that chicken, yoghurt and potatoes are ‘different’.  But what does this mean for ‘public attitudes towards food supply technologies’

CAP – CAP reform will have huge effects on food supply, on the use of technologies, on the knock-on effects for landscape and environment, and so on.  The public are utterly disengaged.  How important is this, really?  The Curry Commission (2002) spoke of the importance of ‘reconnection’ between farmers and consumers; but what are the real consequences of ‘disconnection’ (which seems to have become more rather than less pronounced in the subsequent decade or so)

food waste – the huge waste of effort, money and resources associated with food waste has received steady coverage over the past few years; and WRAP has been making a crucial contribution both to raising awareness and to encouraging action.  But deep dilemmas remain: packaged ready-meals, for example, involve less energy during production and distribution, and retain food waste in concentrations that benefit from ‘economies of scale’.  Are ready-meals thereby more sustainable?

Reviewing this list of examples, and the many others that have occurred and recurred over the past decade or so, we would suggest an initial set of three issues to be explored in further dialogue:

Fresh – consumers are very keen on ‘fresh’ food; it ranks alongside ‘price’ and ‘brand’ and ‘convenience’ in factors influencing choice.  But behind ‘fresh’ lies the supply chain that enabled the item to be fresh.  Is ‘fresh’ an entry point for dialogue?  Consumers presumably already understand that ‘fresh’ means ‘recently’ caught or picked or killed: how ‘fresh’ do they want or need something to be, really?  What sort of technologies would they tolerate in pursuit of ‘even fresher’?

Dinner versus the environment – although the habit of eating meals as a family, or in groups, has been fading in recent years, it remains an occasion where there is an opportunity for discussion.  How often do people, in such settings, discuss the food on their plate, and where it came from, and the issues raised?  Might it be possible to use labels (could there be a campaign?) on table-products (ketchup, milk, mustard…) simply to foster discussion rather than promote a particular solution?

Trust – it is a commonplace these days to hear from the public that they no longer trust scientists, politicians, big businesses, the media and so on; they believe only their ‘friends and family’.  There are, however, limits to this, as the big retailers already know: shoppers at M&S and Waitrose have ‘delegated’ the responsibility for food supply management to their preferred brand and are willing to pay accordingly.   Is that the end of the matter – or is there still a role for consumer pressure? It would be fascinating to know if consumers are really bothered, or whether, in the end, they just want to carry on living their lives in the ‘belief’ that a trusted ‘someone else’ is taking responsibility.

[1] See e.g. ‘Exploring Catalyst Behaviours’, Brook Lyndhurst for Defra, (2010)
[2] See e.g. ‘The animal welfare provenance of food - communicating and engaging with consumers: a review of the evidence and intervention’, Brook Lyndhurst for Defra (2012)
[3] ‘Public attitudes towards novel food technologies’, Brook Lyndhurst for Food Standards Agency (2009)
[5] See e.g. ‘Consumer Insight: Date Labels & Storage Guidance’, Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP (2011)


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