Very interesting to see the Food Standards Agency publish Our Food Future in February this year which includes quite a lot about edible insects and the challenges of building consumer acceptance of new forms of food.
This document is a literature review and synthesis of how food may have to change in the future to deliver what is needed, and the challenges associated with this. It is part of a wider programme that aims to “put consumers first in everything we do” and ensure consumers have “the right to the best food future possible”. As well as a literature review it draws on recent public engagement activities run by the Wellcome Trust and Which?
The report contains a lot that would be of interest to any company seeking to create and market products for human consumption.
Some key points are:
- Members of the public are generally not aware of the term “global food security” and they don’t think about the future of food or the issues around this – food is an immediate matter where their choices are based on short term considerations in the main.
- For most people in everyday life food is not eaten as a result of rational deliberation – the most influential factors in food choice are price, quality and taste. Health considerations are subordinate to these and environmental considerations lesser still. People will only change their approach to wider considerations where their immediate concerns around price, quality and taste are satisfied.
- Food choices are heavily influenced by emotions, habit, convenience and a growing proportion of people’s choices are constrained by factors such as desire to lose weight, allergies, low incomes, cultural/religious considerations.
- People are generally not aware of a “food system” – their perception of food innovation is associated with “unnatural, mechanised and alien”.
- Eating meat can be fundamental to self and social identity – getting people to reduce their meat consumption is seen as much easier than persuading htem to stop entirely.
- In considering new forms of food – various factors are considered. An assessment of risk (based on personal experience of risks and ill effects), the scale of the organism involved (high tech applied to small organisms seems to be more acceptable than to larger animals, for instance) and the degree of apparent naturalness… Desire to see safe-guards in place to help with uncertainty.
The reference to eating insects is interesting (it seems best to quote it directly):
- All other food technologies are much more emergent, attracting very little awareness among the public, and being very little researched to date in terms of public perceptions; these technologies include nanotech, and personalised nutrition advice based on genomics. In these spaces, experts call for awareness raising, or two-way dialogues in order to help the public establish their views. Finally, eating insects is an example of a potentially innovative practice (rather than a novel technology) which features in the literature. Indeed, eating insects is taken up by the wider public as the epitome of the debate on future foods – and is treated as novel, trivial, and revolting on social media, although in dialogue exercises it elicits few concerns, in principal at least (being both natural, and normal, somewhere).
- While ‘food futures’ is beginning to appear as a professional agenda, the future is a dimension which is missing from public discourses around food. A telling example of this is provided by a ‘social listening’ study undertaken for the Wellcome Trust (OLR 2014); social listening, whereby researchers analyse content which has been shared through publicly-accessible social media platforms (largely Twitter and Facebook), provides an interesting complement to conventional market research methods, in that, while it is not derived from a representative sample of the public, it analyses discourses which were created without any researcher inputs (hence there is no chance of leading the public – a constant risk in areas of low salience and understanding). The OLR study reports that the social media debate was confined to future foods, was “small in volume and limited in scope”, and that “most of the people talking about the topic were not seriously engaged with the future of food” (ibid.: 44). They conclude that “any triggers in debate were drowned out by general noise – mostly around the novelty of eating insects” adding that such discussion tended to be approached from the perspective of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’.
This review opened by noting that the public’s spontaneous discussions of future foods (as evidenced by social media) revolved around eating insects, and that the topic was commonly trivialised and expressed simply in terms of ‘yuck factor’ (OLR 2014). Eating insects is an innovative practice, rather than a novel technology; it tends to fare better in public dialogues than it does on say Facebook, and in the Which? 2015 exercise it met with a relatively positive reception, respondents noting that eating insects was common in other countries, some of which countries had healthier diets than our own – thus it could be said to be ‘natural’ if not ‘normal’ here (Piazza et al. 2015). In the Which? dialogue, participants were also relatively positive about the idea of using insects as animal feed – eg for chickens, which again was deemed acceptable as it was “fairly natural for chickens to eat flies” (Which? 2015: 37). Discussions became more complicated when the process of feeding the insects on waste products was introduced, with some participants worrying that chickens would end up indirectly being fed on their own wastes.
The report concludes that a concerted effort is needed to engage with the public and open them up to a greater level of trust in the food industry and in positive attitude to new food products and types, as part of supporting innovation in the food system. This should mean that he Government and bodies like FSA will be supportive of Woven’s members.
We will maintain a dialogue with DEFRA and FSA with this in mind. It seems very positive and a genuine desire to see more positive public reactions to innovative new types of food and my contact in DEFRA is keen to use Woven as a means of getting into a dialogue with entrepreneurs.