by | October 26, 2022 | Opinion

The role of consumers’ in co-creating better food systems in Europe: it’s about trust, communication and regulation

When it comes to shaping food systems, people’s food choices can have a big impact. One of this year’s European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) sessions was dedicated to exactly that: exploring the role of citizens in multi-governance efforts to transition to safer, healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. People’s behaviour around food is a complex issue, with trust in the food chain at its basis. 

While social scientists are still discussing the very meaning of the term, trust remains a fine and complex phenomenon. Despite the common narrative, it cannot be built or rebuilt. It is trustworthiness that must be earned and deserved by every single one of the stakeholders.  

Trust is the key to positive relationships and central to how we behave and interact with others. It becomes even more critical, and even more strained, when facing uncertainty. The multi-crises we find ourselves in – the pandemic, the climate crisis, the energy and cost of living crises, and food insecurity – put both our trust and the food system under an additional strain. The trust in food systems is exceptionally complex, as it involves a number of different stakeholders sometimes with opposed interests, people’s behaviour around food is influenced by a number of cultural, social and economic factors, and our purchasing decisions are driven by price, taste, healthiness, safety, sustainability, not all in equal measure. 

On top of it, we operate in a swirling nightmare of information quicksand. Never in our history have we had such easy access to such a wealth of knowledge as we have today. And never was our behaviour so influenced by a lack of awareness, misinformation, and distrust. To close this information gap, we must persist in translating science on healthy and sustainable food systems into digestible parcels that people can make sense and use of. But that is only the first step, as nutrition and health literacy, while important, are not critical in purchasing decisions – price and taste still happen to come first. 

Therefore, to really change the behaviour, we need more than improved science communication. We need a shift towards healthier food choices, and towards products and services that facilitate healthy and sustainable diets. More importantly, we need a paradigm shift in our collective thinking, as only a concerted effort will lead towards healthy and sustainable diets, underpinned by healthy and sustainable food systems. 

Europe’s food safety system, with its globally recognised achievements, did not emerge from good intentions alone. It was driven by strong and clear regulation. Today, as we face multiple converging crises, we urgently need a sustainable food system. At EPHA, we believe that such a comprehensive transition will also not be achieved by good intentions only – it will need strong and clear regulation. Just as the General Food Law sets the stage for Europe’s food safety regime, the upcoming legislative food systems framework must make Europe’s food system healthy and sustainable.  

A key aspect in this change will be the One Health principle, which puts the health of people, planet, and animals at the centre. Earlier this year, EPHA has published a position paper on why Europe needs a health-oriented food policy, with One Health as a leading vision. We provide concrete proposals on how the Farm to Fork Strategy and upcoming sustainable food systems law can support all people in their aspirations to eat healthily and sustainably. This especially through the creation of enabling food environments for healthy and sustainable diets, and a nutrition-sensitive approach to agriculture. 

To conclude, to earn consumers’ trust and to influence behaviour, science and technology are not enough. It takes persistence, honesty and reliability from all stakeholders. If we are to secure a buy in, we must make sure we are listening. We must be where the discussion happens, we must talk with and not at people, we must hear and acknowledge their concerns. In doing so, we should not be shying away from emotions. We must be consistent and persistent, aligning messages among stakeholders. Only with strong trust, we will be able to get consumers on board with innovations and diets that can move the EU towards a healthier and more sustainable future.

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