By Rob Yorke
Calls for transparency within food systems does not mean everyone wants to know what is in their beef burgers, but people ‘wish to know they could access the information if necessary’.
Prof David Hughes, self-styled as ‘Dr Food’, spoke about future food trends, including why reducing risk from shorter supply chains is good for everyone, as he delivered the Bledisloe lecture at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU).
He said: “We are entering a new era when more people are interested in where their food comes from.”
He said retailers were seeking shorter supply chains with even large food companies such as Unilever being aware trust had drifted away from them.
This meant they had allied themselves with regenerative agriculture, while ‘seeing farmers as part of the solution, not part of the problem’, with social purpose driving the largest players.
Farmers need to get used to these trends, he said, adding children were driving changes.
“Go forward a generation. What proportion of our children are going to be vegetarian? Higher than it is now,” Prof Hughes said.
Livestock farmers in particular must adapt to the pressures ahead, added Prof Hughes.
“This is not a scientific issue, it is an emotional issue.”
“It is not going to go away – if you are in meat or eggs, consumers are focused on the impact of that product on their health, the environment and on animal welfare issues,” he added.
However, this provided huge opportunities where UK livestock farmers ‘can drive a point of difference’ with imported products.
“Farmers here have good stuff, with consumers wanting better meat, so celebrate that,” he added.
“Keep telling people your story, play to your strengths – it is long-term, but consumers trust UK farmers.”
He called on governments to learn from the past, adding: “Legislating on welfare, as happened with the pig industry 20 years ago, but then allowing in imports of a lower standard, can be devastating.”
And even if the domestic market provides for potential, farmers should get ready for more labelling around ‘climate friendly diets’, reflecting environmental standards of varying complexity.
Time for British farmers to tell their story
UK farming should look where consumer trends are headed and what other markets are doing, said Prof Hughes.
“Once a year, look up and out, rather than down and in,” he said.
He told those at the RAU to start with consumers, look at their kitchens, and work backwards.
“The growing popularity of non-meat based foods has lessons for all producers,” Prof Hughes said.
“Farmers in the UK, unlike other farmers around the world, are too defensive, keeping their head down until there is a problem.”
He said there was much more trust in UK farmers over other players in the food industry, more than farmers realised.
Consumers were looking for added value around where their groceries come from and those which have stories associated with them.