EU consumers open to exploring more sustainable diets, but lack information to do so

The survey found that price, lack of information and the challenge of identifying sustainable food options as well as their limited availability were the main perceived barriers to sustainable eating.  [SHUTTERSTOCK]

EU consumers are influenced by environmental concerns and willing to change their eating habits accordingly but lack of information, high prices and limited availability of sustainable foods still stand in the way, according to a new survey from the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC.

The survey, conducted in 11 countries, comes just two weeks after the European Commission presented its blueprint for sustainable food and farming. 

It found that over half of the respondents agreed that sustainability concerns have either some (42.6%) or a lot of influence (16.6%) on their eating habits, concluding that two-thirds of consumers are open to changing their eating habits for environmental reasons, with many willing to waste less food at home, buy more seasonal fruit and vegetables and eat more plant-based foods. 

However, it concluded that significant barriers remained for consumers to be able to act on this.

Price, lack of information and the challenge of identifying sustainable food options as well as their limited availability, were listed as the main perceived barriers to sustainable eating. 

As such, it concluded that more efforts will have to be made to foster behavioural change and that, in order to encourage people to eat more sustainably, the sustainable food choice must become easier.

Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC, said that “price ranks first among the barriers to eating more sustainably, in nearly all countries.”

“Governments and consumer groups have a key role to play in making consumers realise that eating sustainably does not necessarily have to cost more. But it must go hand in hand with changes in food habits, such as reducing meat consumption, wasting less, and swapping water bottles for tap for instance,” she said.

Commission bemused by consumer information conundrum

The European Commission has started sketching the new EU-wide food labelling scheme, expected to be proposed in the context of the new Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), but the debate over what kind of information to provide to consumers has just started.

In terms of improving access to information for consumers, the survey found that most consumers (57%) want sustainability information to be compulsory on food labels.

The recently presented Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy confirmed that the Commission will examine ways to harmonise voluntary green claims and create a sustainable labelling framework that covers, in synergy with other relevant initiatives, the nutritional, climate, environmental and social aspects of food products.

“Combined with certification and labelling on the sustainability performance of food products and with targeted incentives, the framework will allow operators to benefit from sustainable practices and progressively raise sustainability standards so as to become the norm for all food products placed on the EU market,” the strategy reads.

The EU has previously tried to adopt methodologies to measure products’ environmental footprint (PEF) as part of the efforts to move toward a green single market, and several industries have tested the PEF in practice in a Commission-led pilot phase.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides recently told EURACTIV that she is “fully aware that consumers want to have access to maximum information, in a clear way, and if possible on the labels, on the food that they are buying in stores.”

Farm to Fork strategy softens stance on meat but backs alternative proteins

The EU’s pivotal Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, presented on Wednesday (20 May), softened its stance on meat compared to the previous draft versions but offered staunch support for alternative proteins, which campaigners said was the first step in the right direction.

The survey also found that decreasing red meat and dairy consumption were challenges for consumers.

Despite the fact that slightly over 40% of consumers reported they have either stopped eating red meat or have cut down due to environmental concerns, more than one-third of consumers responded that they are currently unwilling to eat less red meat.

“It comes across as difficult for many consumers to cut down on red meat, though our consumption in Europe is well above what is recommended for human and planetary health,” Goyens commented.

Despite this, nearly 50% of consumers said they were willing to eat more vegetables/plant-based foods.

Whilst they have little appetite for insects and cultured meat, consumers were found to be more receptive to plant-based ‘burgers’ and traditional vegetarian foods, such as pulses, as alternative sources of protein. 

“Most people have nothing against eating more lentils, beans, and other pulses as an alternative to animal proteins,” Goyens added.

Although the EU’s pivotal F2F strategy stopped short of a commitment to stop stimulating production or consumption of meat, which had been included in the draft version of the strategy, it offered staunch support for alternative proteins and a move to a “more plant-based diet.”

The survey also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has been key in rapidly transforming how we relate to food, with consumers leaning towards opting for more sustainable choices. 

“It surely is difficult to predict whether trends like home cooking or increased demand for local food will last, but policymakers should capitalise on them where they can contribute to a more resilient and sustainable food system,” the report concluded.

Innovation spurred by COVID-19 crisis highlights 'potential of small-scale farmers'

the recent coronavirus outbreak has put an enormous strain on the EU whole agri-food sector and especially on small-scale producers. However, farmers have been rapidly innovating to create novel means of selling their produce to keep themselves afloat.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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