The rise of the “Food Citizen”

South East Asia is a paradise for food lovers. In Singapore, the people are not only infamous food travellers and hunters, but the government itself aims to turn the island into a world-class tourist destination with a slew of events gathering the world’s most renowned chefs. In ASEAN, the market for fine dining is booming with 20 restaurants awarded Asia’s top 50 restaurants in 2017.

But as consumers are getting more sophisticated are they also growing a conscious and are they able to see the paradox in our broken food system?

The role of food television in our perception of food

We live in a time where we not only buy, cook or eat food, we watch food channels, record food escapades, post on Instagram, search restaurant reviews and read menus online. In many ways, food is not just a necessity it has become a hobby. According to the American author and food expert Michael Pollan, we have “turned food into a form of weekend recreation, a backyard sport for which we outfit ourselves at Williams-Sonoma, or a televised spectator sport we watch from the couch.”

If we are now sitting on the couch and watching TV food being cooked instead of making it ourselves – what is it about food and cooking, that makes these programs reach such levels of popularity?

Food has been a part of our TV line-up for many decades but productions have become less about learning how to cook and more about examining food as a source of joy, health, weight loss, travel adventures and life’s moments. Though we spend less time into the kitchen and more time onto the couch, we are inspired to slow down, eat better and pay more attention to the nutrition facts labels.

Michael Pollan explains our fascination for food programs saying that “the chefs on TV get to put their hands on real stuff, not keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi; they get to work with fire and ice and perform feats of alchemy…”

If cooking is as central to human identity and if food appeals to our deep connection to nature, television must play an important role in the food and nutrition education. It has the power to instil healthy eating habits, foster food literacy, and communicate on the environmental, social, and health consequences of our food choices.

And as our interest in food grows, so has the number of food documentaries that tell stories about the people who produce our food. By framing our complex food system in a simple and visual way, these productions help people understand the paradox in our system, the challenges in our food supply chain and inspire them to take actions.

So, what is broken in our food system?

Movements to transform our food system have sprung up everywhere. People are working together to change the way we produce, consume and buy food. But what needs to be fixed?

In one sentence: We need to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050. As a result of rising population and declining resources, our global food system is facing a number of large-scale and interconnected challenges and it becomes critical to find solutions. The below graph illustrates these issues and how they are inter-connected therefore creating a “combined challenge”.

The World Resources Institute published an impressive piece of research “Creating a Sustainable Food Future” providing an in-depth analysis of the existing challenges as well as proposing a menu of solutions to close the “food gap”.

Oxfam GRAISEA project supported by CSR Asia research is working towards change in the food and Agriculture sector, towards the fact that livelihoods for small scale producers in South-East Asia can be improved through responsible, gender transformative value chains and private sector investments.

But food consumers don’t need to read technical research to be aware of most of these challenges. A number of personalities have already spent a decade advocating for a more sustainable food system. As a global ambassador for Oxfam International, the British rock band Coldplay has been promoting the GROW and Make Fair Trade campaigns while on tour. Celebrity chefs also become more vocal. In the UK, Jamie Oliver has been active in lobbying the government to establish a multi-sectorial child obesity strategy and improve children’s nutrition.

A few independent organisations have already started to analyse the impact on consumers to understand if a revolution is about to happen.

From food consumers to food citizens?

In March 2016, the Centre for Liveable Future, part of the John Hopkins University released the results of a first public opinion survey, which showed that American voters care about issues related to food sustainability.

  • 92% of respondents believe that producing food in a sustainable way is a high priority
  • 74% of respondents say dietary guidelines should include sustainability measures
  • 79% of respondents want scientists (not politicians) to set dietary guidelines
  • 52% of respondents would be less likely to re-elect a politician if they ignored sustainability in the dietary guidelines

The centre concluded that we are “witnessing the emergence of the food voter, a person who understands the impact of his or her decisions about what and where to eat – and cares enough to vote accordingly”. Not only is the public becoming more aware of our food system’s issues but it understands the wide-reaching impact of his decisions.

While food citizenship becomes a common concept in the US and in Europe, we can wonder if there is a similar trend in Asia. Though no comparable survey has been conducted, a number of consumer trends are emerging and reflecting a change in the expectations of the majority of Asian consumers.

The global market intelligence agency Mintel has explored how SE Asian consumers’ priorities are evolving in a report published earlier this year: “Global Food and Drink Trends 2017

According to this report, the first key trend is about Tradition and “consumers are looking for traditional or retro-inspired products; and if there are tangible connections with the past, traditional products can benefit from an element of trustworthiness assigned to the claims or story.”

The second trend is about consumers’ preference for “natural, simple and flexible diets, which drives further expansion of vegetarian, vegan and other plant-focused formulations”.

Time is of the Essence” was the 3rd trend identified in Mintel’s report, which suggests that the time investments required for products and meals will become as influential as nutrition or ingredient claims. “Many consumers are seeking balance, which has led to products that have ‘slow’ claims.

Finally, the 4th trend, “Health for Everyone”, suggesting a preference for healthy products. This health consciousness is a well observed trend as Asia is getting fatter faster. Obesity prevalence increased by 28% on average in the ASEAN-6 in a four-year period and costs up to US$10Billion annually.

In China, as the middle-class expands, disposable income and quality of life increase, people also aspire to have a more healthy and balanced lifestyle. Across other markets, a series of food scandals in the recent years have made consumers highly alert to the ingredients used in products and the safety of production processes. Some markets also underwent a shift in consumer consciousness similar to what is happening in Europe and the US., with the main driver being food tv shows, emphasising the importance of fresh and healthy ingredients.

Based on Mintel’s report we can foresee some trends in Asia that are comparable to those in the rest of the world though the scale and the political implications are certainly very different.

So what should Food companies do to move into this ‘citizenship age’?

In June this year, the Food ethics council in the UK published its report “The Food Citizenship” as a result of a ten-month inquiry, working with six organisations across the food industry to explore a future ‘Citizen’ food system.

The objective of the research was to “explore what could happen if all the key players in the food system switched from a Consumer to a Citizen Mindset”

The Citizen Mindset is “a way of thinking rooted in a belief that people are best understood as Citizens: when given meaningful opportunities, we can and want to shape what the choices are (not just choose between them), and seek the best outcome for all (not just narrow self-interest).”

In the Consumer Mindset, producers and the public for instance are disconnected. But when thinking of people as Citizens, producers can actively invite a public they see as capable of contributing meaningfully to understand rather than just asking them to buy.

The report offers key learnings not only for corporate but also NGOs and the government to better engage with food citizens. The combined challenge of food sustainability requires intense collaboration and efforts at all levels of the food supply-chain.

Consumers or citizens, we can predict that people will be participating in the food system in all sorts of new ways, and exploring power to shift our current system together. A growing number of people is ready to do more than just consume, acting collectively, not just as individuals.

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1. The World Resources Institute. Creating a Sustainable Future:
2. Oxfam GRAISEA CSR Asia research:
3. Mintel. Global Food and Drinks Trends 2017:
4. The Food Ethics Council. Food Citizenship Report: