Last week Monsanto announced that it is stopping efforts to persuade the EU to allow Genetically Modified crops to be grown in Europe. And Arla announced that it is introducing its own farm assurance scheme because, they say, the Red Tractor no longer satisfies the needs of retailers or consumers. Both stories illustrate the importance of understanding consumers, and the impact they have on the business climate in which farming operates.
In the case of GM crops, those who supported their introduction failed to realise that there was no compelling reason for consumers to embrace the technology. GM was not going to make food cheaper, or more nutritious, health giving or delicious. This lack of a clear benefit means that whilst 13% of the population are strongly opposed to GM, and 3% strongly in favour, over 50% do not have a view either way, a figure that has remained the same for the last 10 years. (Source: IGD research). And such is the lack of interest or concern that, according to Food Standards Agency research undertaken last year, 76% of the population have never sought information on the topic, and 63% have never talked about it with anybody.
Add to this inertia the vocal lobbying done by anti GM campaigners, and the lurid stories put out by the tabloid press (example - the Daily Mail’s headline following Monsanto’s announcement was “Frankenstein food firm quits Europe”) then it is unsurprising that Monsanto felt it sensible to put their efforts elsewhere.
In the case of the Red Tractor, those in charge have failed to recognise that a growing number of consumers these days want more than bare minimum standards, particularly when it comes to animal health and welfare.
Whilst just 16% of people put animal welfare as a key driver of their food buying behaviour compared with 74% for price and value and 76% freshness and quality, almost 80% state that animal welfare matters to them. These numbers are sufficiently sizeable for retailers to take note and act. (Source: Labelling Matters Project by RSPCA, Soil Association, WorldSociety for the Protection of Animals, Compassion in World Farming).
The Red Tractor people are now starting to rethink their approach, and now seem prepared to move forward. Commenting on the Arla announcement the Red Tractor response was to say that they would work with Arla to ensure that the scheme meets the needs of buyers, consumers and farmers.
Farming faces a number of major issues as it strives to balance food production and environmental management, whilst remaining competitive in a global fight. Consumers will have a view on all of them, from TB management to large scale pig and dairy farms, crops for biofuels to animal cloning.
Farming leaders need to ensure that consumer opinion forms the backcloth to deciding the issues upon which the industry feels it must stand its ground.