The UK has declared its aim of having net zero carbon emissions by 2050. For this target to be met, it is necessary to rethink how we produce, transport and consume food particularly within sectors such as meat and dairy where greenhouse gas emissions are high.
I explain how researchers and academics are exploring ways to change consumer behaviour by gaining a deeper insight into the influences on shoppers’ food purchase decisions and by raising greater consumer awareness of what goes on in agri-food value chains.
Agri-food value chain: a movable feast
The context for my recent research has been the agri-food industry and stages within the agri-food value chain. Nowadays, this value chain no longer covers just ‘farm to fork’ but has been extended to cover all the stages from seed to food waste, including factors such as production efficiency and traceability.
It has become important to include the seed in research; new seeds are constantly being developed to be more productive, provide a greater crop yield, be more resilient to pests and disease and use fewer resources, such as water, to grow.
Not biting off more than we can chew
The focus of research, discussion and debate today has widened to include the impact of the agri-food system not only on our health but also on the environment. We know the agri-food production system makes a significant contribution to carbon emissions.
Researching each step of the value chain allows us to pinpoint where the greatest emissions are generated and identify the stages in the agri-food system that most impact the environment.
We also explore other forms of environmental destruction such as land degradation, soil erosion and air pollution. With most waste generated at the producer and consumer stages of the value chain, researchers are identifying ways to change behaviour and minimise food waste, exploring how we can ensure that consumers buy only the amount of food needed to avoid having left-overs rot on shelves and in fridges, a process which generates yet more greenhouse gases.
Having your cake and eating it
Together with a number of academic colleagues, I have recently applied for funding to research ways to transform food systems, minimise the system’s negative impact on the environment and also support people’s health. This research, focusing on the UK food system, will look at how public health literature such as the ‘Eatwell’ guide, developed by the UK Government and the NHS, influences consumer behaviour.
The Eatwell guide provides information about the healthy proportions of fat, carbohydrates, protein, sugar, salt etc that people should include in their daily diet. We will examine the factors influencing consumer choices on the food they eat and look to identify how these choices can be better aligned with the messaging in the guides provided by the government and other relevant leading authorities.
We will investigate how ‘food ideologies’ are formed. Food ideologies are the attitudes, perceptions, motivations, feelings and emotions consumers have about food. They can be affected by a consumer’s gender, age, economic status and lifestyle to name a few. We will explore whether these ideologies are influenced by friends, information online or on social media, or by travel, lifestyle magazines or celebrity chefs. How do consumers use information to shape their food attitudes?
Rule of tum
We will also consider how consumers create ‘food rules’. An example of a food rule is when someone makes a conscious decision to become vegan, or to eat food in season or to buy and eat food produced locally. We will investigate how food ideologies influence the formation of shoppers’ food rules and explore the extent to which consumers stick to them!
It will be interesting to examine how robust these food rules are and how the retail environment and food marketing relate to them. Do consumers bend the rules during their weekly shop? Do self-declared ‘vegetarian’ shoppers break the rules as soon when they see a colourful display of barbecue kebabs in the meat section for instance? How and why does this happen?
We will also consider marketing approaches within retail. The layout of food in a supermarket today does not reflect the importance of certain foods to a healthy diet. Supermarkets are not currently configured to support shoppers buy and eat healthily or eat in an environmentally friendly way. Store layouts do not reflect the messages around eating well! We are not advocating for people to avoid treats altogether but argue that it is important to maintain a healthy balance.
We will also look at sustainable consumption. How does the way we buy and consume food impact on the environment? How and to what extent can consumers follow the Eatwell guidance and how can the guide complement the achievement of healthy eating, sustainability and environmental protection goals.
Food for thought about the environment
In the last year, there has understandably been a huge focus on health and wellbeing. Climate change and the environment has slipped down the agenda. Our attention must now return to this. Consumers need to be more aware of how their food is produced and to be encouraged to purchase food more responsibly.
There has been a surge in the number of people growing their own fruit and vegetables as a result of the pandemic. Shoppers are becoming more conscious of how our food is grown and harvested. They have also experienced the ecosystem first hand, appreciating the importance of soil health, the availability of water and the need to keep pests under control. Some have seen how a crop can become diseased or destroyed overnight. By growing food ourselves, we deepen our understanding. This has definitely made consumers more conscious how labour and resource intensive growing crops can be.
The South West is in an enviable position when it comes to food; lots of farmers and producers operate here. In many parts of the region, it is possible to grow and buy local. Our region could lead the way in educating consumers and changing their perceptions, encouraging them to purchase locally grown produce. People in cities are not able to access locally sourced produce so readily.
Food occupies a central place in our lives. It is with us from birth to death. It links the entire global population; food and funerals (and the associated rituals) are common to all people and cultures across the world. We need to give it the attention and respect it deserves but also understand how it affects our planet. There really is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’.