The green cost of fruit and veg

Asda is piloting a food delivery scheme that it says could cut 3 million “food miles” a year if it were successfully rolled out across its UK stores (MW last week). The initial two-month pilot in Cornwall will see farmers delivering their prod

Packaging showing ‘food miles covered’ may be some way off, but concern over the environmental impact of imports could herald a revival of interest in domestic produce, in spite of consumer inertia

Asda is piloting a food delivery scheme that it says could cut 3 million “food miles” a year if it were successfully rolled out across its UK stores (MW last week). The initial two-month pilot in Cornwall will see farmers delivering their produce directly to stores across the county, rather than sending it via a distribution centre, which could often be hundreds of miles away.

Asda maintains that the scheme will cut 6,000 food miles a month from the supply chain even though it is only a localised trial – an outcome that is sure to be welcomed by many observers. Asda has introduced other initiatives to cut carbon emissions, including a switch to bio-diesel and a shift to moving more freight by train, in response to growing interest in provenance issues among consumers. However, new research from the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) shows that consumers are largely unaware of the environmental impact of imported foods.

Asda’s initiative is significant: the main food outlet for UK consumers is the supermarket, where 94% of all shoppers buy their fruit and vegetables. (Although farmers markets are growing in popularity, they attract just 13% of shoppers.)

Supermarkets have acknowledged the growing concerns about food and the environment by extending organic ranges, and developing initiatives such as stocking “ugly fruit” and reducing food packaging. Yet among consumers, the reality is there appears to be limited environmental awareness regarding food supply. Only 36% of shoppers are aware of the concept of food miles, a figure rising to 42% among the over-50s. However, when presented with a choice, 52% of consumers say the UK should import less food in a bid to reduce the environmental impact, even if this means there is less variety and that costs would increase. This rises to 64% among the over-50s, compared with 42% of 16- to 34-year-olds.

But 23% of consumers still take the less environmentally friendly view that the UK should maintain or increase imports of food in order to maintain variety in the shops and keep costs as low as possible, even if this is more damaging to the environment – although only 18% of over-50s held this view.

Despite the fact that 96% of all adults buy fresh fruit and vegetables and 89% of these shoppers do so at least once a week, the majority of shoppers (61%) are not concerned about which country their fruit and vegetables have come from. Only 9% would consider themselves “very concerned”, with 30% being only “fairly concerned” about the country of origin of the food they buy. Concern is markedly higher among the over-50s (50% are very, or fairly concerned) compared with 25- to 34-year-olds (36%) and 16- to 24-year-olds (24%).

The truth is that many shoppers are ignorant of the country of origin of their fruit and vegetables – 24% don’t know if the food they buy is grown in Britain or not. This rises to 27% among 25- to 34-year-olds, and 43% among 16- to 25-year-olds, but is much lower among the over-50s (8%).

Three-quarters of shoppers say they would buy more British produce if it was available, and 35% say they would be prepared to pay more for it. However, only 38% of shoppers regularly buy fruit and vegetables grown in the UK – the over-50s are much more likely to do so (54%) than 25- to 34-year-olds (32%).

Many consumers (58%) blame the big multiples for a lack of home-grown food on the shelves. Shoppers believe the big supermarkets do not do enough to support small British food producers and this figure rises to more than two-thirds of over-50s (68%).

However, 26% of consumers believe the main reason there is not more British produce in the shops is because it costs too much.

As well as a greater propensity to “buy British”, the over-50s appear to be more environmentally savvy than their younger counterparts and possess a greater understanding of seasonality. One of the reasons that the over-50s seem to be more knowledgeable regarding food seasonality is that they are more likely to own a garden and grow their own fruit and vegetables. According to BMRB’s TGI survey, 32% of over-50s grow their own fruit or vegetables, compared with just 16% among the 16- to 24-year-old and 25- to 34-year-old age groups.

This research from BMRB leads to the inevitable conclusion that consumers are unconcerned about the food miles issue – which is why telling customers no exotic fruits are available because transporting it across the globe creates unacceptable carbon emissions is not likely to be a key marketing message from retailers. Given that a quarter of consumers are unaware of the origins of their fruit and vegetables, and 61% are unconcerned about where they are from, it is unlikely the supermarket chains will rush to launch a “Buy British” campaign similar to that of 1968. Yet next month sees the British Food Fortnight, which is now in its fifth year, celebrating and promoting British food.

There appears to be a long way to go to improve awareness and educate younger age groups about the environmental issues surrounding imported food, and the benefits of growing their own fruit and vegetables. However, as awareness improves, demand for home-grown produce will rise, providing an interesting opportunity for the supermarket chains.

Steve Cooke, marketing director at BMRB, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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