Are farmers really perceived as oversupported, resistant to change and irresponsible? Recent indications suggest not. ‘Food on My Table’, a market research study recently conducted by Promar International indicates that there is a shift in consumers’ opinions of farming.
Over the past five to ten years consumers have been subject to a rising number of health and food scares, fuelled by the ever speedy (and often inflated) response of the media. Questions have been raised on the production methods used for growing cereals, vegetable and fruit crops, and around animal welfare and husbandry in general with regard to farming. There has been publicity about nitrogen from fertilisers leaching into watercourses, excessive use of pesticides, and antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock – all entering the food chain and ultimately ending up on the dining table.
Lord Whitty, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for food and farming, has re-iterated the view that farmers are largely to blame for their current bad press. At the Farming and Food in Oxfordshire after Foot and Mouth conference, held late last year, he offered the opinion that consumers place their trust in supermarkets, rather than farmers, politicians or scientists. Indeed, many factions of the agricultural industry still believe that farmers are perceived by consumers as being over-supported, resistant to change, and responsible for recent disease and food scares.
Concerns about food production methods, however, are no longer the sole preserve of the minority or extreme members of society. They are becoming widespread and mainstream. Furthermore, consumers can no longer be grouped together as one large homogenous group.
As a result of higher levels of education, the growing influence of interest/pressure groups, and the active role of the media in conveying information along more fragmented and targeted channels, UK consumers have become more aware of issues related to food, be they production-, ethics- or health-focused. Consequently, consumers are becoming more questioning, discerning and confident in voicing their opinions (and taking the necessary action to address their concerns).
Concerns of some kind affect virtually every consumer. However, perceptions of concern and their influence over behaviour will vary significantly by individual. Promar International’s recently published research ‘Food on My Table’, investigates the attitudes of six consumer types. These consumer groups are defined primarily by attitude and other lifestyle factors (age, education, lifestyle and exposure to media).
The Passionate are highly aware and concerned by ethical issues, and will go out of their way to boycott any sort of products that fall below their exacting standards. The Informed have a more realistic approach, based on the interrogation of a selective choice of media. Changes in purchasing decisions will often occur on behalf of their children. These two consumer types contrast sharply with the Indifferent and the Cynic, who are least likely to be influenced by “concern” issues – the latter will often dismiss them entirely.
The Confused is an interesting consumer type. Buying behaviour is fickle, with opinions and concerns heavily formulated by media “hype” and, consequently, changing frequently.
There are very few consumers that will remain entirely rigid in their stance – often decisions will be further influenced by factors such as convenience, money and occasion.
The propensity to take action against concerns by consumer type
Promar’s research clearly reinforces this view of an increasingly concerned consumer, prepared to exercise choice in support of good agricultural practice and the British farming industry. ‘Food on My Table’ reveals that consumers’ attitudes are changing. The majority of consumers from all the groups identified do believe farmers are credible. Even those consumers who could be considered as belonging to the Indifferent and Cynic groups expressed support for British produce and the UK farming industry. British consumers are, on the whole, fairly cynical about the supermarkets’ motivation, believing multiple retailers hold the consumer low on their list of priorities, after profit and external stakeholders.
In contrast, consumers see farmers as small businessmen with a livelihood at stake, who therefore put all their energy into monitoring standards very closely to make their farm business a success. Overall, consumers see the farmers’ motivation as trustworthy. In fact, far from increasing the poor image of farmers, Foot and Mouth has almost certainly created empathy among many consumers.
This support for British farmers has led, for some, to a conscious change in shopping habits. The overwhelming desire to support British produce where possible sees some consumers purchasing food from independent traders, farmers’ markets and local butchers. Whilst the Passionate and the Informed are most likely to display greater selectivity in their choice of outlet, the Confused could easily be swayed into changing their habits. Even the Indifferent indicated a degree of concern over some food safety issues, such that they may not be able to be considered indifferent for much longer.
The ability to exercise choice in terms of shopping outlet is key for some consumers. They believe that choosing between a local butcher and major supermarket chain, for example, gives them the opportunity to distribute their spend between outlets, rather than giving it all to one larger store. Furthermore, there is a desire to support such traders as they are perceived to offer good quality fresh produce that is not mass-produced.
Interestingly, all these local outlets have one thing in common; a proximity to the grower/producer. Consumers report that they feel comfortable that smaller outlets are in touch with where and how the produce is grown and farmed. This knowledge is considered important in monitoring quality.
Whilst the press/media and Lord Whitty continue to support the negative view of UK farming, ‘Food on My Table’ presents evidence to suggest that recent initiatives to change consumers’ negative view of farming, such as the ‘Little Red Tractor’ are beginning to take effect. Such PR initiatives need to continue, and an industry-wide PR campaign will be beneficial in further improving the image of UK farming and farmers.
‘Food on My Table’ is a comprehensive research project investigating consumers’ attitudes to a wide range of food related issues. Consumers’ concerns regarding food quality, traceability, organic food and GM have been identified and discussed in depth.
For more information about this article or Promar International’s research services, please contact Helen Grant, Business Development Manager. Tel: +44 (0) 1635 43363, Fax +44 (0) 1635 43945. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org