The food system is facing some fundamental challenges – from obesity to security and sustainability. While these issues preoccupy the government and food industry, consumers are generally not part of discussions about what these may mean for the type of food system and production methods we may want in the future.  

Earlier this year, Which? partnered with the Government Office for Science, working with Sciencewise to address this. We conducted deliberative dialogues in Cardiff, London and Paisley, reconvened over two Saturdays to present the range of challenges to a broadly representative group of consumers and explore the acceptability of different solutions, from behavioural change to more technological approaches. 

The research starkly highlighted that these issues are not on most people’s radar. After reflecting on them, presented by a range of experts, participants generally accepted that the challenges facing the food industry required far reaching, fundamental changes.   

While people were familiar with some issues, such as healthier eating, they were often stunned to hear about some of the other impacts, particularly the impact of some food production methods on water usage and carbon emissions.  Even some food safety issues came as a surprise, such as the threat of development of anti-microbial resistance. 

It’s just a big eye-opener – the amount of greenhouse gas, the water, the crops … it’s just everything.’’ (Paisley, Female) 

By the second session, most people said that it has changed their behaviour as well as their understanding. They had, for example, been trying to reduce how much food they wasted. Follow up interviews a month after the dialogues suggested that this had largely been sustained.

People recognised that addressing these challenges requires action across the whole system – from the government, food and farming industry and consumers. 

Participants generally preferred food production processes that were seen as being natural. But overall, none of the solutions which ranged from precision farming to use of insects, were rejected out of hand, although some were approached with much greater caution and need for independent reassurance. 

People reached for behavioural solutions first as they considered that this was something they could do something about, although they recognised that the extent to which they could change their behaviour was limited by the products available to buy, advice and labelling. 

I would say we have a responsibility as individuals as much as the people who made the videos – challenging food waste and climate change – there are things we could do.’’ (London, Female) 

People discussed the risks and benefits of different approaches. They wanted reassurance that the products of technologies and processing methods were safe to eat (with respect to both short- and long-term harm); and that other unforeseen consequences were being monitored. 

Overall, the research highlighted that people become very engaged with these issues once they are exposed to them – and expect more action and oversight. Tackling them requires a joined up approach across government. Defra’s 25 year Food and Farming Plan is an opportunity to ensure this happens and to put consumers at the heart of food policy.

Sue Davies, Chief Policy Adviser at Which?