This article is part of our special report Farm to Fork: what role for consumers and innovation.
Following the publication of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy six months ago, policymakers acknowledge that the future of food is dependent – now more than ever – on innovative solutions that challenge the industry status quo. While the Strategy has defined a series of ambitious goals, debate now concentrates on the ‘how’. The Farm to Fork Strategy is the theory but now we need the practice.
Dr Andy Zynga is the CEO of EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, with the aim to create a sustainable and future-proof food sector.
Innovation is part of the answer. If done right, it can be disruptive and drive monumental change. It can remove obsolete solutions from the food system and inject healthy competition into the market. Best realised through a combination agrifood sector knowledge and policy interventions, and ‘pulls’ guided by consumer trends, choices and preferences, innovation can truly empower consumers to make sustainable and healthy choices – just as the Farm to Fork Strategy recognises.
The recent growth of plant-based products is one such example. After an impressive wave of innovation, alternative protein products are moving from niche to mainstream, with the European meat alternatives market now accounting for around 40% of the global market and forecast to grow to €2.4bn by 2025.
But if innovation is the motor propelling change in our food system, consumers are the ones in the driving seat. Their choices and purchasing behaviour indicate what they are prepared to pay for, and therefore which innovative solutions, products and services they are ready to pull into the market.
Great research will only deliver impact when it becomes innovation in the marketplace and meets consumer demand. But how are we going to inject this dynamism into the agrifood sector? And how are we going to mobilise the great forces of consumer choice and behaviour to achieve this transformation, while catering for the needs and expectations of all the players in the value chain?
Our recipe includes three main ingredients.
Firstly, policymakers and industry professionals must place consumers at the heart of innovation strategies moving forward and not leave them at the margins. This means consumers need to have a place in our innovation ecosystems and in our R&I projects. Horizon Europe encourages researchers to do so, but we are still far from a total rethink of the innovation process around the needs of consumers. We need to redesign R&I and build opportunities for co-creation.
EIT Food is piloting this approach through our Consumer Engagement Labs – pre-competitive co-creation sessions run by consumers and focused on ideation or development of new product concepts.
Involving consumers exposes them to the complexities of the food system and the trade-offs faced by the industry as it tries to solve multiple problems. For example, giving animals more space to roam while ensuring high safety standards against diseases such as salmonella or swine flu may be one such trade-off.
Secondly, consumer information is key. Prices are pieces of information but, today, this is not enough. The agrifood industry is expected to deliver a higher level of transparency. We need solutions to capture information along the entire value chain and make it available to consumers. Technology can be of great help here and we see considerable potential for the application of blockchain and AI in this field. At EIT Food for example, our partner startup Connecting Food has created a digital platform that can follow a product in real-time, tracking and digitally auditing each batch or production as it goes through the food supply chain. This ensures that the consumer can easily see the entire journey of the product in their hand, from farm to fork.
Today, we are labelling the nutritional qualities of a product, but tomorrow we will also need to find a way to include information about its environmental and carbon footprint, allowing consumers to understand the process of a product’s creation and why the price tag is as it is.
Thirdly, consumers will only embrace change and help us pull innovation in the market if we find solutions that meet all their demands. Consumers will always demand food that is tasty, safe and convenient, but innovation must now also deliver food products that are both healthy and sustainable. At the same time, affordability remains an important concern, especially in the current economic context. The challenge we face now is to reconcile the need for an affordable price with the need for a fair reward for those who produce food, starting with farmers. It is crucial therefore to support farmers to help them deliver on the Farm to Fork Strategy. Bringing consumers and farmers closer together will be vital to create our recipe for success.