Dr. David Hughes is Emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College London and visiting professor at the Royal Agricultural University UK, also known as ‘Dr. Food’.
This article summarizes an interview with Dr. Hughes on the topic of consumer, retail and food services perspectives on food sustainability and their implications for pork producers.
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We are living in ‘unprecedented’ times. The coronavirus pandemic, war in Ukraine, global peak in food prices as of March 2022 and current climate change crisis are all putting pressure on global access to and use of natural resources and the provision of a sustainable food supply.
Alongside this, we are experiencing a global growth in the risk of livestock diseases. This is putting added pressure on producers’ ability to provide a continued, sustainable supply of meat products.
And looking forward, the picture is unlikely to get much easier. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 global risk report predicts that over the next 10 years, the majority of major global risks will relate to climate, and over the next 2 years, there will be “persistent poly-crises of food, energy and fertilizer shortages” and we can expect ‘‘further food price spikes as the cost of living crisis continues”.
Yes. It has made countries think again about food security and enabling more food production at home. This includes governments thinking about more secure and sustainable sources of farm inputs, such as fertilizers, gas and oil, moving away from reliance on Russia and investing in other/more local markets.
The effect on consumers worldwide has been substantial. An EU survey from 2022 found that rising food prices was the top issue of concern to consumers, ahead of the invasion of Ukraine and extreme weather events associated with climate change1 . And if we look beyond the EU, to countries where more than 50% of household income is spent on food, such as Kenya and Myanmar, the impact of rising food prices on household budgets has been, and continues to be, far greater.
Back in the EU, consumers are re-prioritizing the factors driving their purchasing behaviour compared with the pre-pandemic period; paying less heed to issues such as high welfare, organic or ethical production methods in favour of the simple affordability of foods2.
Well, in many markets it has brought about intense retail competition and price matching. There has been a polarisation of meat prices to meet a divergence of consumer budgets, some of whom can afford to pay high prices but many of whom are, for the moment at least, looking for the cheapest available option.
A clear price hierarchy of meats has emerged across both EU and US markets (lamb>beef>fish>pork>chicken). This has led to instances of unsustainably low prices of pork. For example, pork loin on sale at below 2 $ US/lb in a major US retail outlet in September 20223 . Such low prices affect not only the purchasing behaviour of consumers but also of retail customers and, if sustained, will inevitably impact on the economic sustainability of pork production.
Pressure to improve food sustainability is coming from multiple stakeholders:
Yes, that’s it. And the challenge for pork producers today is that as they strive for ever higher productivity and efficiency, this must be balanced against stakeholder (especially consumer) demands for food that has been produced to high animal welfare standards, using production methods that are ethical and sustainable, with high regard for the environment and with supply chain traceability and transparency.
This challenge is likely to increase further as we come out of the current global cost of living crisis and consumer decision making shifts to being less price-driven and giving greater consideration to a whole host of other interests that include (but are not limited to) where the food was produced, how it was produced, its environmental and wider sustainability credentials. Producers need to be aware of these interests and ready for this shift.
Yes. I think pork producers worldwide can take some reassurance from the fact that, in most first world regions, there is a high degree of consumer trust for farmers. For example, in Europe, 67% of consumers across all EU countries expressed trust in framers, compared with only 48% expressing trust in manufacturers, in a 2022 EIT Food Trust survey4 . This means that there is a potential opportunity for producers to play a greater role in communicating with consumers about meat products in the future, for the benefit of the whole production chain.