/ Food & Drink

Are you hungry for new food technologies?

Operating on an apple

GM, food cloning, nanotechnology… food innovations are everywhere, but do we welcome them? Don’t we need to know exactly what the pros and cons are so we’re in control of what goes on our plate?

Is innovation a dirty word for consumers? That was a question put to me when I recently gave evidence on behalf of Which? to a House of Lords Inquiry on innovation in agriculture.

There’s a lot of focus on the role of new technologies in food production. It’s generally recognised that we’re going to need to produce more food over the coming years, but in a way that’s less damaging to the environment.

For or against food innovation?

A government ‘Foresight’ report published in January looked at the future of food and went even further. It suggested that the food system will need to change more radically in the coming decades than ever before.

The trouble is, all the new technologies that have been introduced in recent years have been handled pretty disastrously. The consumer research we’ve done certainly doesn’t suggest that people are against food innovation, but it does show that they expect its introduction to be carefully thought through.

Essentially, people want to know that there are real benefits to new food technologies, and to understand the risks so they can choose whether or not to buy them.

Stop repeating the same mistakes

This didn’t happen with GM food. More recently we’ve seen that it hasn’t happened with the products of cloned animals either – despite it raising strong ethical and animal welfare concerns. And it seems we’re also making the same mistakes with the use of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology manipulates materials on an incredibly small scale. Custard relies on nanotechnology to thicken, for example, although we didn’t call it that at the time.

But we’re now entering a new era where many new products are made possible by using nanotechnology. The trouble is that it’s hard to see what it really means and where it will be used in practice.

Policy makers and politicians are still debating how to regulate nanotechnology as there are a lot of uncertainties about the risks. And the food industry seems wary of discussing it openly in case ‘it becomes another GM’. Ironically, despite the potential for genuine benefits, it probably will unless there’s more transparency about it.

Time for an open debate

So, in answer to the original question, I don’t think innovation is a dirty word. I certainly look out for new products that I think will taste better, be healthier or are just something different to try. It’s all too easy to dismiss consumers’ worries about new products or technologies as irrational rather than taking time to understand the reasons for their concern.

We really do need to start having a much more open and honest debate about the role of new technologies in tackling some of the challenges our food supply chain is facing.

New food technology shouldn’t be introduced through the back door. We should all be able to have our say, have confidence that products are effectively regulated and be assured that we are still in control of what we choose to eat.


Innovation has been going on for a a very long time. Cooking has generally been a good idea to improve food safety, though grilling and frying do produce carcinogens. Lead compounds have been used as sweeteners in the history of food. The food industry is driven by the need to make products at competitive prices. In Victorian times, food adulteration (with harmless or harmful substances) was common. Nowadays, the quest to produce cheap food is one of the reasons why so much processed food is available.

The Consumers’ Association and TV documentaries need to do more to help us understand what is already in our food and the risks/benefits of new technologies before new products arrive on supermarket shelves.

I am particularly worried about the amount of convenient, ready-to-eat food available to us, and the amount of advertising of these products. This is a major factor in obesity and I don’t think that new food technology is going to help this problem.

Pickle says:
15 March 2011

Oh for heavens sake! Lets go back to eating proper fresh food straight from the country.
All this mucking about with perfectly good food leaves me feeling sick.

As far as I’m concerned we should be concentrating on the cause of so called innovation in foods.

The human population is too large and growing too fast. We need a program to control the growth. The only country even half way trying is China. We do not want or need more people we need fewer. Far fewer.

The ways that used to be used were wars and diseases. Now it is the opposite – a disaster is approaching.

Much to my disgust – it is the wildlife that suffer first by overexploitation of the very ground they need to live on too. Here the butterfly species has halved – elsewhere the higher animals are either extinct or decimated – except for cockroaches – mice and rats.

What a future to look forward too

Tessa says:
2 November 2013

I think we need to look at other view points other than those of the Government and the NFU which will have an industry influence.