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Innovation pathways for the consumer

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agritech sector

The fourth and final roundtable of the Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series.


 

AgriTech will play an essential role in the transition towards a more secure and carbon-efficient food system. However, a lack of consumer trust currently poses a blocker to the integration of new technologies into the production of food.

According to the 2020 EIT Food Trust Report, consumer trust in the agrifood industry has recently increased in the EU, but not significantly. As the report noted, only 40 per cent of EU consumers believe the products that they are purchasing are ‘authentic’ (meaning “they are what they say they are and include the correct, original information on the label”) and only 30 per cent are confident that those products have been produced sustainably.1

At the same time, however, consumers are growing more conscious of sustainability when making food choices. In the same survey, 76 per cent of respondents said they felt “a moral obligation to use environmentally friendly products,” and another 60 per cent reported that they tried to choose sustainable goods over those that are not.

Operating in a similar market, and still utilising significant portions of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the UK’s food system faces a similar challenge to their EU counterparts in terms of improving consumer trust. However, a growing desire for sustainability presents an opportunity for the sector to emphasises AgriTech’s utility as a net zero driver to the public.

At the fourth roundtable of the Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series, contributors were asked to consider the unique moment the AgriFood sector finds itself in, and how the sector could better serve the needs and concerns of consumers. Discussing how stakeholders in the innovation pathway can engender greater consumer trust in their products, better understand consumer need and platform the net zero utility of AgriTech innovation, roundtable participants outlined several key considerations for policymakers outlined below.


Learning from the past

Many of the controversies that have surrounded the integration of new technologies into food production have a common theme – a sense among consumers that new changes were being imposed upon them, but not to their benefit. For instance, as one contributor to the roundtable session noted, the sense of distrust that surrounded genetically modified crops in the 1990s was largely spurred by an overwhelming feeling that the transition to GM foods would deliver negligible benefits to consumers.

Clarifying the benefit of new technologies to consumers should, accordingly, be prioritised. Amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and a growing consumer appetite for sustainable options, the AgriFood sector arguably has an obvious and acute set of consumer needs to cater to. As one contributor noted, “this summer has been a turning point for many people. I think the prospect of having a degree of insurance against climate change and climate shocks in the food production system is a very positive thing. But it’s something that we haven’t really talked about – and how we can use AgriTech to provide this insurance hasn’t been very well articulated.”

However, as another contributor noted, it is key to ensure that the sector does not come to think of consumers as a homogenous unit. “It’s not a silver bullet that’s going to do all this. It’s going to be a range of different messages that we get through.” While some consumer groups are likely to be swayed by AgriTech’s ability to deliver health improvements, others may find food security or the AgriFood sector’s emissions to be more pressing concerns. The sector’s messaging on the benefits of AgriTech should, accordingly, target different demographics – and seek to emphasise its utility as a solution to rising costs, climate change, and food security to do so.

It is also key, however, that outreach also focuses on leveraging AgriTech’s ability to deliver benefits to the consumer as an individual. As one contributor noted, “if you make [products] tastier, if you make them cheaper and if you make them with a clear benefit to the consumer,” then you can more clearly demonstrate the value of AgriTech to a wider audience. However, it should be noted that the making of health claims is strictly regulated. Accordingly, messaging on the benefits of AgriTech should also take a keen focus on individual interests and health – and should seek to outline these potential benefits in their messaging to al demographics.


Knowledge-sharing

There is a significant gap in the public’s knowledge of the various technologies subsumed within the concept of AgriTech, and their impacts (existing and future) on the food system. As one contributor noted, referencing the most presently active area of debate for AgriTech, “the vast majority of consumers have never heard of [gene-edited products], they don’t know what they are, [and] they are very uncertain about them.”

The government’s precision breeding bill, for example, has amended the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to clarify the distinction between precision bred organisms (PBOs) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – but there remains a great deal of uncertainty amongst the public regarding the difference between a GMO and a PBO. While several contributors noted that “the government has done a very good job on the bill itself,” greater clarity must be provided on what a PBO is, how it differentiates from a GMO, and how creation of PBOs can deliver benefits to both individuals and communities by “providing affordable, nutritious food in the most sustainable way.”

Groups such as Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) have suggested that this definition lacks scientific rigour and should this concern not be addressed, there is a legitimate risk that the precision breeding bill will fail to assuage public concerns over the inclusion of genetic technologies in food production – and could thereby further harm consumer trust in the AgriFood sector.

It is therefore key that consumers better understand the distinction between GMOs and PBOs, and how genetic technologies already impact the UK’s food system more generally. Almost all cotton on the market, for instance, is derived from GM plants and a significant portion of livestock feed includes GM ingredients – and outreach should explore opportunities to use other working examples of technologies in existing food and agricultural systems to highlight potential benefits to consumers. It is also essential that communications with consumers represent the complex uses and implications of these technologies as effectively as possible. As one contributor explained, “we’re going to have to have more of these conversations with consumers and with supermarkets to make sure that we’re not oversimplifying in ways that reduce trust.”


Building trust through regulation

Numerous contributors emphasised the need for improved public outreach – however there was some discussion over who would be responsible for its oversight. It may seem that regulatory agencies are best placed to provide clarity to consumers on new products. However, if these agencies are perceived to be abdicating their duties regarding food safety, consumer trust could be further eroded.

As one contributor noted, the ultimate role “of the FSA is to establish, and advocate for, consumer needs, consumer views, and incorporate them into the information and advice they provide to ministers.” As such, while contributors agreed that the provision of clear and consistent safety measures was a key component of retaining consumer trust, many expressed a view that safety measures were more of a ‘hygiene factor’ than a selling point. Instead, many suggested that customers would be more likely to purchase, and trust, foods produced with new technologies if the health and environmental benefits of the new production process were clearer.

However, regulators have a key role to play in the implementation of new technologies, nonetheless. For instance, on the matter of labelling, it is key that the FSA and the sector continue to critically assess the impact of their decisions on consumer perceptions. For instance, as one contributor noted, while labelling PBOs may initially improve consumer trust in the AgriFood industry, this may entrench perceptions that certain technologies are not safe. “Is it in the consumer interests for the regulators to reinforce perceptions by labelling not only this, but perhaps a whole list of other future new technologies that might be coming along? Especially when, if you probe a little more and delve a little deeper, you can start to understand why it is that consumers are feeling uncertain and what things you can do to build trust.”

Regulators should, accordingly, seek to prioritise the strengthening of relationships with consumer groups and community organisations to better understand how to leverage and develop their status as a trusted safety authority most effectively. Lessons should be taken from responses to safety concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic – and the opportunity to build on the pandemic’s impact on the profile of genetic innovation should also be capitalised on. As one contributor illustrated, “we have seen a change and we actually think Covid helped.” Continuing, however, they noted that, “when we asked people questions about just GMOs or gene editing, there’s still quite a negative perception and a lot of misunderstandings.”


The private sector

Contributors commented that while public outreach led by government departments would be an essential part of any information campaign, there was also a need for the private sector to take a leadership position on outreach. As one stated, “as a funding agency who spends a lot of money on funding the science, we are putting, almost half of our money now into public education awareness… if we really want these innovations to be taken up, we actually have to have the stakeholders driving it and doing that education and engagement.”

There is a particularly important role for retailers and supermarkets to play. As one contributor noted, “we need to reinvent agriculture on a sustainable pathway, and the extent to which supermarkets support that narrative will play a huge role.” Consumers largely interact with the AgriFood sector through the mediation of retailers, and it follows that the latter’s support will be essential to improving trust in the sector. As another contributor argued, “if we go back to the GM debate of the 1990s, the supermarkets took a position and from that point forward, the debate was finished.”

Working with supermarkets to promote and sustain innovation is, however, complicated by the relatively short-term planning of retailers. As one contributor noted, “we can’t really engage the supermarkets until we’re much nearer the market in Britain.” Retailers, like consumers, will generally prioritise products that they can utilise in the near term. “So, if you’re a technology developer and you’re looking at beginning a project that may produce results in 5-to-10 years, [retailers] don’t have time for you.” Similarly for consumers, “it’s very hard for consumers to engage with the product until you’ve at least got it in trials and at least a couple of years of commercialisation.”

While innovators and distributors alike can also contribute to improved communication with consumers, AgriFood’s ability, as a sector, to reframe its communications and engage with consumers more effectively is somewhat limited by how many moving parts are involved in the sector and how long it takes to adapt. One contributor explained that, like the energy market, “agriculture needs decades to adapt.” As such, while there are significant opportunities for the private sector to cater to evolving demand and an emergent “consensus around the need for change focused on responding to climate change and on food prices,” there is a strong likelihood that the private sector will be too slow to respond without government guidance and co-ordination.

The UK would therefore benefit from a government-led initiative to provide some form of an advanced market commitment (AMC) and extend the time horizons for AgriTech projects. This should also include a review of existing land management strategies, which may involve the UK government emulating the ethos of AgriTech land strategies such as British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) Use Regulation in Canada.

This initiative should also seek to develop improved sustainability metrics and streamlined methods of reporting. “Giving the industry and supply chains a better means of ranking innovation and technology by its impact on sustainability goals, and generally helping that conversation to be more scientific and evidence-based,” will help to create a clear but comprehensive picture of AgriTech’s role relative to the UK’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It will also open new opportunities to integrate consumer data into the innovation pathway.

As one contributor stated, “I think that’s a real plea for research here to try and get these baselines and these methods and the metrics that we want to measure and the methods by which we measure them, and then someone can measure them.” Continuing, another noted that “we’re always going to work with imperfect knowledge, and so we will get stuff wrong. But that shouldn’t stop us from improving on the 80 per cent that we can do better on. So, let’s focus on those sustainability metrics that we think are the most important to measure and then let’s start to measure them such that someone independent can demonstrate a government position and can demonstrate the direction of travel to all stakeholders.”


Communicating the benefits

The role of the consumer, as the ultimate purchaser of food products, must not be understated and should form an essential component of government and the sector’s thinking on AgriTech. However, given the complexity of the food system, and the potential for the actions of one stakeholder to impact another, the AgriFood sector and policymakers will need to “really think about the questions [they] ask of the different stakeholders and what is appropriate for them to answer.”

Reaching consumers effectively will also require a clear commitment from government that coordinates the efforts of stakeholders – and a considered approach to consumer outreach that emphasises AgriTech’s benefits clearly. As one contributor stated, “if you look at the health sector, some of those technologies have been far more accepted than perhaps in the food sector. But in part that’s because people see the benefits and will try them.”


Innovation in the Food Supply Chain is a recently finished closed roundtable series that is currently being developed into a report. If you would like to contribute to the report, please contact either eliot.gillings@publicpolicyprojects.com or operations@publicpolicyprojects.com.

1 https://www.eitfood.eu/blog/what-is-the-state-of-consumer-trust-in-the-european-agrifood-industry