By domesticating a limited group of plants and animals, agriculture essentially changed the human diet and lifestyle. From hunters and gatherers we became farmers and this had far-fetched consequences.
This is one of the apparently obvious but at the same time deep concepts I started to mull over since reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Yet this kind of joined-up, holistic way of thinking was not reflected in the debates of today’s Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels, where no food manufacturer or nutritionist featured in any of the four panels of the event.
While the on-going consultation on the future of the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), open until May 2, is sparking much debate about farming there seems to be limited interest in thinking about what we want to produce and what we want to eat within the same box. This is puzzling, particularly now that global population growth, climate change, obesity in some countries and persisting famine in others are exposing the challenges of our agri-food systems.
If the CAP has to adapt to the 21st century and is to be considered an economic, environmental and social policy that needs to deliver effectively for all stakeholders, as Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan put it in his keynote address, why are we not discussing how to leverage the power of consumer choices to achieve this change?
To a large extent food production is an industry like many others. Farmers will produce what people want to buy. By working with food industries I have learned how deeply and fast consumer demands, preferences and expectations are changing the food industry sector. Let me make a couple of examples.
More and more consumers are increasing their consumption of plant-based products alternative to dairy and meat. This is happening for a number or reasons. Some people are lactose intolerant, others are vegetarian, vegan or are simply worried about the health and environmental impact of what they eat. Others, like many millennials, are just developing new tastes and habits. The result is a significant shift in the food business. The meat substitute market is expected to reach 5.2 bn USD by 2020 globally.
Not only do consumers want to eat different products, they are also increasingly concerned with how they were produced. The growth of the organic food market illustrates the reach of these new concerns. In my home country, for instance, sales of organic products have grown by 21% in 2016 according to Coldiretti, continuing a trend of 10 years of uninterrupted growth which has brought 13 million of Italians to eat organic at least once a week.
Consumers also want to know where their food is coming from. European Commission’s statistics show that 90% of Europeans want to know the origin of meat, both fresh and processed. According to the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, these demands should be met by new origin labelling policies.
Traceability has become the new mantra in sectors such as coffee, cocoa and even palm oil, where the origin has nothing to do with the ingredient’s taste and features but can be related to its sustainability (somehow). I know the palm oil sector quite well and can testify how brand reputation in the eyes of consumers is one of the forces behind the adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices.
The marketing to consumers of new, healthier, more sustainable and innovative food products has been key in unlocking the power of consumer preferences which have re-orientated large sectors of the industry. How can we stimulate more of this and bring it also to the agriculture sector?
Perhaps the EU should look at how it communicates its agricultural policy and see what consumers want to buy (or pay for), or it could think about educating new generations so that their future food habits can contribute to the transition of the European farming sector to a new model. Not many people know that the EU runs a scheme to promote the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products in schools. Education and agriculture would have been a great topic for a panel debate at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture.
Interestingly, the one to highlight the role of consumers as a force for change was former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – who delivered the opening keynote address at the Forum – when he was asked what will help to ensure that Sustainable Development Goals are met. In his view, quite a few companies are realising that it is in their own interest to operate sustainably. Yet not all of them have. But people are going to demand and make choices about which products they should buy and which companies to support. If a company ignores these issues – he continued – it is going to have troubles with the community and its stakeholders, because sustainable development is becoming very important to everyone. Transparency will put pressure also on governments to perform.
So there is a powerful feedback circle which links consumers to producers (and citizens to policy-makers) which will be difficult to ignore. I’d argue that it’s better to manage and leverage it to everyone’s advantage, rather than to react to it passively, so that it becomes part of the solution to address the challenges facing the future of agriculture. Hopefully, it will be discussed at the next edition of the Forum.