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  • Esme Jepp

What Does “Natural” Really Mean? Consumer Attitudes to Scientific Interventions in Food Production

Against a backdrop of climate change, geopolitical instability, and the resulting concerns around food supply, it has never been more important for sustainable methods of food production to be utilised. The key to this is bringing consumers on board with the necessary changes, most particularly the use of scientific intervention, thus far demonised in the mainstream media and popular opinion.

An understanding of the current widespread perception of these methods and interventions, and of what the popular term “natural” really means to consumers when it comes to food, is needed before any real progress can be made in bringing the public on board. The recently launched policy and communications platform, Science for Sustainable Agriculture, recognised this and commissioned England Marketing to establish opinion on this most pertinent of topics.

England Marketing boasts a panel of over 2,000 highly engaged members of the public, the vast majority of whom report a keen interest in food, agriculture, heritage, and sustainability. The England Marketing panel were the key driver for this research, providing real insights from real people, who are highly engaged and have strong opinions on the provenance of their food. Panel members sign up because they want to make a difference and are not incentivised with “points for prizes” or encouraged to complete multiple surveys in a short space of time in exchange for rewards. This means that their opinions are genuine, insightful, and reliable. For this research, it was felt the panel would provide a “best case” scenario for representative public opinion and consumer engagement with food that has been the product of scientific intervention.

Bearing this knowledge of the panel in mind, the results of the research were eye-opening, demonstrating that much more needs to be done to bring consumers on board. As a prime example, even this well-informed group of respondents were largely unaware of the level of scientific intervention, most particularly with regards to fresh produce, that underpins the industry and is required to deliver the recognisable, and indeed edible, sweetcorn, carrots, bananas, and others, that we know and enjoy today, and the question must be asked how even those who are engaged with food can have become so dislocated from the realities of its production.

Knowledge of native crops is low, with many being unaware that the majority of food crops grown on British farms, e.g., wheat, barley, oats, sugar beet and potatoes, originate from other parts of the world and have been adapted to our growing conditions through human ingenuity and extremely necessary scientific intervention. If this was popular knowledge, the” fear of the unknown” so prevalent when it comes to genetic modification and other forms of scientific intervention could be vastly reduced.

So, how will the industry bring consumers on board?

Trust and communication are the most pressing factors in answering this question. Many respondents reported feeling “blinded by science”, with technical terminology, and a lack of accessible information, and this must change. Trust is also a key factor, with a huge disparity currently evident between trust and responsibility. 88% of respondents believed the Government should be communicating this information to them, but just 11% felt them to be a trustworthy source. Clearly, this is not a favourable metric when considering how to bring consumers on side with these developments.

Trust is much higher in farmers and public sector/academic scientists, at 68% and 59%, respectively, and these parties must be encouraged to assist with bringing the public on side with these necessary developments. Public levels of concern around climate change are high, especially amongst older generations, and millennials are beginning to speak up about the crisis. Consumers are largely open to accepting the contribution of scientific intervention in tackling these challenges when they are communicated with clearly and directly. The time is ripe for harnessing these attitudes and encouraging support for more sustainable approaches to food production with accessible information communicated in consumer-friendly terms from trustworthy sources.

You can download the full report here: Science For Sustainable Agriculture

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