Are We Stewards Or Consumers Of Our Food System?

Food & Drink

“The American food system treats us as consumers. People are encouraged to buy more, buy in bulk, and buy continuously.” – April Rinne

For its annual event, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) invited April Rinne to share her insights on the food system. Rinne is a member of the World Economic Forum, speaker, writer, and authority on the new economy, future of work, and global citizenship. She speaks to the critical role food science, emerging technologies, and the food industry need to play in addressing food security. And according to Rinne, when people are treated like mere consumers long enough, it affects how they think and behave, as well as how they see the world and their place in it.

We spoke with Rinne, asking her to expand on what she meant and how it relates to our food system. We then asked Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s Senior Director of Food Chain and Executive Director of the Global Food Traceability Center, to examine Rinne’s assertions from the lens of a food safety professional and highlights how the industry can be more citizen minded. Read below for their insights.

Could you explain the concept of consumer versus citizen and provide an example (i.e., BlaBla car versus Uber)?

Over the past several decades, consumerism has taken root to a degree that we rarely pause to think about what the word “consumer” means. Today, many people simply think of it as a term of art, or a generic word to describe people who buy things. However, I believe that referring to people as mere consumers sells each of us, our economies and well-being short.

Before marketing got hold of the term, to consume meant to destroy, as in consumed by fire. Today, our job as consumers is to buy: produce, consume, produce, consume. A never-ending and rather sad reality. What about all of the other things we are capable of as humans?


Seeing ourselves and one another as citizens rather than mere consumers tells a different story. (To be clear, I’m not talking about citizens in terms of passports and border controls, but rather as a member of a community in a given place.) Citizens seek to contribute, participate, and help create a better place to live, work, raise their families and thrive. Whereas a consumer relationship is typically passive — “just buy this” — citizens are proactive and full of agency.

Some consumer companies are already starting to see this shift. For example, Disney calls its customers “guests” and IKEA “designs for people, not consumers.” But it won’t really be until we see that customers’ primary purpose is not to meet companies’ revenue goals — at the risk of being blunt, our job on this planet is not merely to “buy stuff” — that we can meaningfully shift to a citizen-led approach. I think about REI and Patagonia a lot in this regard, as they literally ask people to “buy less” of their own products. (- April Rinne)

How do you see this concept playing out in the food industry? And what should members across the food industry do to be more citizen-minded?

The food industry is in a unique position, because every person needs food to survive (unlike a range of other consumer-led industries that you could do without). But the food industry, in my humble opinion, has also been one of the most aggressively consumer-focused — so there is a lot it can do to improve.

A consumer-led food marketing campaign has the goal of convincing people to buy more food in order to boost company revenues. The goal is revenue, not well-being. (True, a company will advertise when a product is healthy, but will they stop selling or marketing unhealthy products? Typically no.) When we see people as consumers, we don’t care about their health or well-being, as long as they keep buying — and the more they buy, the better.

A citizen-led food marketing campaign looks very different. A citizen-led food marketing campaign would first question whether it is responsible to sell unhealthy foods in the first place. A citizen-led approach is concerned and takes appropriate responsibility. This can mean many different things: different products, different marketing, different sourcing, and healthier, more authentic customer relationships.

Start by asking two questions: (1) What language do you and/or your company use today, consumer or citizen? and (2) Would you rather be treated as a consumer, or as a citizen? These are often great eye-openers. (- April Rinne)

How can members across the food value chain leverage science to be more citizen-minded?

There are numerous opportunities across the food system, where organizations and individuals can be more citizen-minded. We need to be focused on keeping food safe, nutritious, and reducing our overall impact on the environment. Small efforts compound and make significant impacts. We should incorporate a citizen-minded approach into our daily activities and longer-range plans. For example, the industry and federal regulators have an opportunity to streamline CPG date labels to ensure consistency across categories and help to educate consumers on what this information means. This can reduce unnecessary food waste. Members of the food industry can approach serving sizes in a more health-focused manner, preventing the overconsumption of calories and negative impacts to consumer health. Food science also plays a unique role in packaging, and knowing what we do about plastic waste, this poses a significant opportunity to reengineer traditional designs to be more sustainable.

One additional area that the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is focused on is research funding. Early this year, IFT published a white paper that highlighted the lack of public funding for food research in the US. While research determined that US food research is chronically underfunded on a public scale, it also found that certain countries, including India and China, have increased their public investment in agri-food research. As members of the food system aim to be more citizen-minded, funding is a critical component. Without funding, there is surmounting risk in public health, food safety, and food security, in addition to the erosion of American talent and global competitiveness. By prioritizing federal and private research funding efforts for food with a focus on food science, we can strengthen investment in food safety, food security, and sustainability efforts. (- Bryan Hitchcock)

As we look at broader organizations, such as the FDA, USDA and UN, we’ve seen a number of announcements in regard to food and policy. Is it fair to say that being more consumer-minded and collaborative are keys for the future of food safety and security?

The UN estimates that almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019, which is an increase of 10 million from 2018, and a jump by nearly 60 million in 5 years. And as the number of hungry people are increasing, the FAO estimates that 30 – 40% off food production is lost before it reaches the market. We aren’t able to feed the people on this planet right now, and that will become especially strained with the ever-burgeoning population, the impacts of climate change, and food safety threats. Food science and technology are vital to helping to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. As the food supply becomes increasingly global, international public-private partnerships will foster innovative approaches to solve these challenges.

In the last six months, leading government, NGO, industry organizations including the UN, USDA, FDA and others have published reports and blueprints on the current state of the food supply, public health, and diets. One example of citizen-minded thinking is the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint, which represents a new approach to food safety, leveraging technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system. Rather than existing in a silo, the FDA’s new plan is rooted in partnership between government, industry, and public health advocates. And one of the four core elements is culture and emphasizes influencing the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of people. When we think about being more citizen-minded, there needs to be a strategic approach to collaboration – from the farm to the fork – in order improve global food safety, provide nutritious food for the growing population, and address climate change. (- Bryan Hitchcock)

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