Consumers will play an important role in the transition to sustainable food systems. The Sustainian assessed if there are any significant trends when it comes to sustainable food preferences.

Approximately, a 90% reduction in meat consumption. Preferably, a 75% reduction in food loss and waste. These are some of the cutbacks we need to achieve by 2050 if we are to ensure a food production industry that is sustainable and can live up to the obligations of the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At least this is according to the most comprehensive study to date, that assessed the options for the future of food within planetary boundaries, the newly published study “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits”.

But are global consumers aware of these numbers and their implications? Are they willing to change their behaviour? And how interested are they in making these numbers become real?

By digesting a number of recent surveys, The Sustainian took the current temperature of consumer preferences in five areas that are at the heart of the growing markets for sustainable food.

1) Sustainable and ethical food products: 50% more important than last year

Overall, sustainable and ethical food products are clearly trending. They encompass everything from organic food, fair trade or products wrapped in biodegradable packaging.

The Food and Health Survey 2018 from The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation found that the importance of sustainability within food clearly is on the rise. 6 in 10 American consumers said it is important to them that the food they purchase or consume is produced in a sustainable way, a 50% increase from 2017.

Many companies are responding to this trend. Forbes recently found that the number of food and beverage brands claiming to be ethical on their packaging has increased seven-fold since 2010, a number which is only expected to grow.

2) The meat paradox

Few people haven’t stumbled upon the news about the detrimental environmental effects of meat consumption. Meat consumption has truly become a battlefield, with many supporters but ever more opponents.

The research company Mintel recently found that 28% of meat-eating Brits had reduced or limited their meat consumption over a six month period in 2017 and according to brand new numbers, 12% of Brits now follow a meat-free diet. Alternatively, although meat consumption levels in the US are predicted to rise in the years to come, there will be a tendency to swap beef over chicken. This might explain why there has been a 10% drop in diet-related greenhouse gas emissions from 2004 to 2014, as chicken is responsible for far less greenhouse gasses.

Looking a little outside the West, research shows that 61% of urban Thais and over half of urban Australians planned to eat more vegetables and fruit in 2017.

Although most current surveys convey veggie-friendly responses, there is at the same time an expected increase in meat consumption. A 2018 report from FAO – the UN Food and Agricultural Organization – shows that global meat production is projected to be 15% higher in 2027 relative to the base period.

3) Controlling food loss in supply chains – do consumers care at all?

If food loss and waste were a country it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US.

While much has been written about preventing and reducing household waste, what are consumers’ views on food producers’ food loss? Do they care?

As we couldn’t come across any studies or surveys about the views of consumers on food loss in supply chains, there is definitely a chance for companies to better communicate their efforts in battling food loss in their production chains.

As the private household food waste has received much attention, now companies’ efforts in battling food loss deserve more public discourse. Creating a synergy between better corporate communication and increased public demand for controlling and fighting food waste, might create great results in a short period of time.

4) Packaging and plastic – a modern enemy

Pictures and movies of islands of plastic debris in oceans, mountains of cardboard at landfills, and so on, are starting to make a lasting impact on consumers. At least their awareness seems to be on the rise.

World Bank data from 2018 surveyed consumers from the world’s 12 largest countries and found that as much as 75-90% of the countries’ consumers are concerned with the use of non-recyclable packaging, with the exception of Saudi-Arabia (61%) and Japan (60%).

Already, 44% of European Millennials are avoiding products with excessive packaging.

More and more countries have strategies for dealing with plastic, like the UK that has plastic targets for 2025: 100% of plastic packaging should be reusable, recyclable or compostable. And a few days ago the EU voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans.

5) Transparency in food chains

Publicized food scandals will always trigger public demand for more transparency to ensure food safety. Lately, scandals like contaminated eggs in the EU, or federal inspectors accepting bribes from Brazil’s meat producers, – not to mention recurring horse meat scandals – have made consumers demand more transparency into food chains.   

Mintel research from 2018 shows that 45% of Chinese grocery buyers aged 20-49 rank food safety as a top three concern when choosing a specific supermarket and seven of 10 U.S. and U.K. consumers want to know what’s behind a product’s ingredient list.

On a positive note, in 2018, 68% of US consumers said they were confident in the food supply, up from 61% in 2017.

As revealed elsewhere in this issue of The Sustainian, IKEA has demonstrated how controlling your supply chains can lead to better management and streamlining of resources. But it might also soon lead consumers your way.

Consulted sources:

2018 Food & Health Survey, The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation (2018)
The future of food and agriculture. Alternative Pathways to 2050, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Rome (FAO), (2018)
The future of food: New realities for the industry, Accenture (2017)
What is the Safe Operating Space for EU livestock? EU (2018)
Global Food and Drink Trends 2018, Mintel (2018)
Global Animal Protein Outlook 2018, RaboResearch
Future of food and beverages, Raconteur (2018)
Future of packaging, Raconteur (2018)
Global Impact Investment Network, (2017)
Are They Buying It? United States Consumers’ Changing Attitudes toward More Humanely Raised Meat, Eggs, and Dairy

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