From food irradiation to freeze drying, supply-chain technologies have enhanced the safety and sustainability of foods. Since 1961, global food supply per capita has increased more than 30 per cent. However, public acceptance of new technologies might prove a tricky obstacle to building a more sustainable food supply chain.
Psychologist Michael Siegrist and nutrition scientist Christina Hartmann have compiled research on the psychological and societal factors that influence consumer acceptance of food technologies. According to a 2015 survey of more than 30,000 consumers, the most desirable food attributes are ‘freshness’, ‘naturalness’ and ‘minimal processing’. It will come as no surprise then that a 2018 study found that a label stating that a product had been ‘treated with food irradiation’ was detrimental to consumers’ perception of quality. ‘Many consumers perceive the use of food technologies as contradictory to healthy, nutritious food, which may be a challenge for the industry,’ says Siegrist.
Yet, progress towards a more sustainable and safer food system is difficult to envisage without innovation. Currently, 21–37 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food production. While some people are taking action by making more sustainable choices, Siegrist’s research identifies some confusion when it comes to food technologies. A 2018 study of more than 1,000 millennials, conducted by the US Department of Agriculture, showed that those more concerned about the sustainability of their diet were also least likely to accept ‘shelf-life extension’ technologies, considered one of the most sustainability-driving innovations.
No novel food technology has been more divisive than the use of genetically modified organisms. The 2010 Eurobarometer survey, conducted in 32 countries, shows that opponents of GM foods outnumber supporters by three to one. ‘An important driver of acceptance of food technologies are perceived benefits: taste, nutrition or price for example. While GM foods may improve yields, the direct benefits aren’t to the consumers themselves. It’s not cheaper or healthier, so consumers have been slow to accept it,’ says Siegrist.
Stem cell technology can now be used to grow meat in a laboratory. The first lab-grown burger was made in 2013, but production costs totalled US$300,000. However, in 2019, Dutch food technology company MosaMeat revealed that by 2021, its production costs would drop to US$10 a burger. When scaled up, lab-grown meat may offer a more sustainable and animal-friendly alternative to livestock rearing. But, once again, a 2018 survey showed that the public isn’t quite ready for it. Survey respondents had a low understanding of the technology and a low level of acceptance. When the production process was explained to them, it actually reinforced the acceptance of traditionally reared meat.
‘Cultured meat evokes a “disgust” response in many people because it’s perceived as artificial,’ says Siegrist. He adds that evolutionary psychology might help to explain this. ‘Instead of relying only on our immune system to fight infections in our body, our behavioural immune system has evolved to evoke a feeling of disgust or a “neophobic response” to unknown foods that may have harmed us in the past. The very same behavioural constructs may be impacting people’s willingness to accept novel food technologies in the modern day.’
The majority of research on public perceptions of novel food technologies has been carried out in Europe or North America. ‘It’s important that we understand whether the concept of naturalness is as culturally important to developing countries if we are to ensure global food security,’ says Siegrist. He hopes that we can get around psychological barriers for the common good. ‘Society should move towards a more sustainable diet, but the responsible and safe use of novel food technologies needs to play a part, instead of being perceived as a barrier.'