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.