The proof is in the pudding as consumers look for the data behind the food they eat

Fire. Drought. Flood. Wind. Whatever form an environmental disaster takes, it is sometimes regional food industries that are damaged the most. And now an international food industry analyst warns another storm is brewing: “conscientious consumers.”

“It’s one thing to have a nice story that says, ‘We do the right thing. We’ve been here for 100 years’.’ But these days, consumers are wanting to see data: ‘Show me the numbers. Show me the truth behind your claims’,” says international agriculture analyst Mary Shelman.

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Mary Shelman

“The biggest thing I worry about is traditional agricultural sectors losing their “license to operate” because the rules for production [driven by conscientious consumers] become so strict that it’s impossible to stay in business.”

CSIRO Senior Scientist Dr Nina Welti, who is currently working on trusted supply chains within the organisation’s Agriculture and Food business unit, says consumers are central to the success of agri-business.

“We’re all consumers,” says Welti. “Consumers are setting the bar high for standards. We want to be connected to how our food is made, grown, and produced. We need to turn our food supply chains from a line into a circle, and connect consumers to the producers so that the information and value in dollars, and not just ethical value, is transferred to the producers faster so they can enact those changes that consumers are responding to.”

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Dr Nina Welti

Shelman, the former head of the Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program and Welti, will be among the speakers at the upcoming 2023 Down to Earth forum in Adelaide on February 21 and 22.

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“There are four key macro trends I see now, and they’ve been consistent for more than a decade,” Shelman said ahead of her appearance.

“The first is sustainability, which is now a fundamental, not a fad. The second is conscious consumers – who are engaged, informed and empowered.

“The third is transformational technology, which is being applied from farm to fork.

“And the last one, which we don’t often think about, is the new sources of investment into the agrifood sector – investors seeking urgency and transformational change, rather than the steady, incremental improvement that’s been our pathway before.”

Each element of the food production and distribution system, Shelman says, is evolving. And that changes how they interact.

“No single approach can deliver the sustainable food system the world needs, and if we’re to feed 10 billion people, we need all four approaches to be complementary. And they can be.”

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Shelman points to the success of Ireland’s “Origin Green” validation program, which she helped introduce a decade ago. It collects, collates and reports the data needed to verify the sustainability claims of Irish food exports.

But it’s not a model suited to Australia’s present circumstances.

“With so much of your produce going to Asia, which currently values low-cost and safe food, differentiation on sustainability might not make sense for Australia right now in the way it did for Ireland, whose exports went to the UK and Europe.”

But those circumstances are likely to change, she adds.

“My advice would be, whatever you’re doing on the sustainability front, start collecting the data now across multiple dimensions. We’re already seeing more affluent, engaged consumers emerge in Asia. Be prepared for what your future markets will demand.”

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