Consumers’ role in value chain increasing in importance

Food awareness is rising, and farmers are encouraged to consider consumers as new team members who need training

The impact of COVID-19 on consumers will affect how the agricultural value chain operates in future, said those on a panel discussion held during Ag in Motion Discovery Plus.

Kim Kirchherr, a registered dietitian in Illinois considered a farm-to-table expert, said consumer behaviour is evolving because of a changing definition of health and wellness.

She said people are more focused on a sentiment of well-being. Conversations around nutrition now go from the farm to the table and beyond to things like, for example, food waste.

Ag in Motion Discovery Plus is an online farm show held in lieu of the regular Ag in Motion outdoor farm show, which was cancelled because of pandemic-induced social gathering restrictions.

COVID has amplified the challenges and pleasures of eating and cooking. People are shopping from home and setting foot in kitchens where they may have never ever turned on their stoves, Kirchherr said.

“Never before have people asked so many questions about their immune system,” she said.

And all this comes on the heels of, according to a 2019 American study, anxiety overtaking weight as the Number 1 health concern.

“So we’ve got a stressed out group,” she said. “Now we’ve got this new world that everybody’s navigating.”

Kirchherr said it is an opportunity for farmers to consider consumers as new people on a team who need training. She said consumers often ask for things that farmers have been doing for years, but they either weren’t paying attention or weren’t ready to hear it.

Consumers have a deeper interest in connecting ingredients with their personal health, she said. Heart health is the top cause of death, globally, and farmers and food manufacturers should promote their ingredients that support heart health.

At Bunge, product manager of liquid oils Darren Moody said high oleic canola oil, which is heart healthy, continues to draw strong demand.

“The main difference is that there’s been a shift in demand,” he said.

Demand that was normally in the food service and restaurant realm is mostly in the drive-thru of fast food chains.

“Seventy percent of the demand that a fast food restaurant sees comes through the drive-thru,” Moody said.

On the food manufacturer side, he said the shift is to more edible oil use at home and more frozen foods.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in a lot of our oils that would be found on the store shelves,” he said. “What has probably changed a little bit more is what type of oil our customers are buying. They’re looking for something that will give them that unique fatty acid profile to help with the end-use consumer staying healthy.”

Food manufacturers are also looking for more shelf stability and longer fry life from oils.

Tyler Groeneveld of Corteva’s grains and oilseeds team said COVID-19 elevated healthier snacking.

“People are eating from home, it’s undeniable, and we need to support and adjust,” he said. “What they’re really looking for is permission to indulge” particularly if the food contains healthier ingredients.

He said canola oil is an obvious choice but the company’s cereal breeders are working on other benefits such as fibre and protein, and ways to deal with allergens and intolerances.

“We’re looking at transformational opportunities. Some might call them disruptive,” he said.

The most notable is work to alter the composition of canola meal to make it a more valuable byproduct of oil production.

Groeneveld said consumers want transparency and connectivity and companies are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to boost those.

He added that he encourages primary producers to be ambassadors on social media and to follow others, such as scientists, to learn about other aspects of the supply chain.

“Don’t engage in the trolling discussions when they come up, but I do think it’s important to engage and reflect life as a farmer,” he said.

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