The Future of Food and the Food Industry according to 'Dr Food'

It has been a rough and tumble few years in the global food industry and it looks like there’s more to come writes Professor David Hughes, International Speaker on Global Food and Drink Industry issues ahead of his appearance at NFU Scotland’s AGM and Conference in Glasgow on Thursday 9 and Friday 10 February.

Professor Hughes, aka ‘Dr Food’ writes: A pandemic, war in Ukraine and extreme climate events have created chaos in international markets and analysts predict “persistent polycrises of food, energy and fertiliser shortages during the next 2 years”. 

Global economic growth has been stifled and consumer incomes stressed. The resultant grocery price wars have squeezed margins in the food supply chain, particularly for farmers. Food shortages have fuelled calls for countries to increase their food security. 

Energy price hikes have focussed attention on energy and farm input security, too. Across the globe, polarisation of household incomes has had the impact of “hollowing out the middle ground” for food products – driving strong demand for “value” (aka cheap) products for “have not” households, whilst maintaining robust demand for premium products for the financially better-endowed “have” households!

How we shop and what we buy to feed the family changes through time, albeit slowly, but has accelerated through the past 3 turbulent years. 

In history, we shopped for food ingredients and mixed them in the kitchen to create meals. Now, increasingly, we look to purchase meal and snack solutions – these could be food components which we bolt together to produce a “home cooked meal”, or a ready meal all set to go after a couple of microwave minutes! Or we can “eat out in”, i.e. have our meal of the moment delivered by a person on a motorbike from our restaurant of choice. Food service and food retail have converged.

The double trouble of a “cost-of-living crisis” and a war in Ukraine has pushed concerns about climate change on the health of our planet towards the back of our minds. However, as economic recovery emerges over the next couple of years, consumer concerns about the environment and sustainability will be re-established Big Time as the evidence of our impact on the health of the planet moves back to front and centre. 

Our food products will have nutri- and eco-scores on the front of pack and influence consumer purchase choices. Concerns about planetary health are being championed by activist groups, big and small government, large food companies and consumers (younger ones in particular). 

Our food industry from farm to fork will be transformed over the next 3 decades as countries, industries, companies and farm businesses strive for carbon net zero.

Food producers will face increasing social pressures which will dictate consumers’ choices in their food purchases. “Remind me again what I can’t eat?”: anything with palm oil/soy (from Brazil) as an ingredient; any meat/milk with hormones/antibiotics; meat and milk from industrial sized farms; food with a big carbon footprint; water-intensive crops; crops that harm the bee population; anything in a non-recyclable pack  ….. etc.! 

Astute food industry players will seek to get ahead of the curve on those issues which will disturb growth and profitability in their businesses.

Scottish food producers will not be the lowest cost in the domestic and international markets. However, particularly for “story food” products/occasions (rather than “fuel food”), there are ample opportunities to show a wide range of consumers that “Food from Scotland” has sustainable production provenance, with transparent supply chains, and authentic ingredients, recipes and stories that deserve and can earn a premium. 

Scottish food should be sold with adjectives that consumers can relate to and value. Scots are respected around the globe and so should their food!

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