A public dialogue on food supply challenges and potential solutions in the UK. Workshops involving 49 participants sought to inform the public on the food system challenges and better understand public attitudes towards solutions, notably utilising agricultural technologies.
Problems and Purpose
The food supply chain faces a range of challenges, concerning environmental, health and animal welfare issues. Climate change will exacerbate many of these issues. Studies on public attitudes have found limited awareness of these challenges and potential solutions, notably around agricultural technologies. Consequently, there is limited understanding of public attitudes towards and acceptability of different solutions and technologies.
The challenge in the food sector is that the potential solutions are so diverse. Consequently, it is first necessary to inform members of the public about the breadth of challenges that the food system faces so that they can consider the breadth of options and the individual technologies within a wider context. 
Therefore, this dialogue project was developed in partnership by GO-Science and Which? to bridge the gaps between government initiatives looking at global and UK food security challenges, the restricted understanding of consumers regarding the different approaches that are possible, and limited consumer input into policy. The partnership commissioning approach offered an unusually wide opportunity to inform:
- Government policy-making and policy-making processes
- Academic food systems research through the Global Food Security programme
- Industry-led research through the Agri-Tech Leadership council (now the Agri-Food Technology Council) and the Centres for Agricultural Innovation
- Research and campaigns by consumer-interest organisations, such as Which? and others
During the course of this dialogue project, additional policy opportunities have arisen including the Government’s 25-year plan for food and farming (expected in early 2016), the DH’s Obesity Strategy and the Food Standards Agency’s work on Our Food Future. 
Background History and Context
The food supply chain is facing unprecedented challenges prompting a re-examination of how food is produced in the UK and globally. Global population is forecast to exceed 9 billion by 2050, leading to a higher demand for food and putting further pressure on finite resources. The food system already faces multiple environmental (water, pollution, waste, climate and biodiversity), health (obesity, food safety), animal welfare and security issues. Future climate change will exacerbate many of these issues and put additional pressure on world food supplies.
The sustainability issues facing the food supply chain are well known to government, the food industry, researchers and non-governmental organisation (NGOs) in the food sector. However, recent work by NGOs showed that consumers can be poorly informed about food, that most consumers were unaware of many sustainability issues and that many people are disconnected from food production.
In parallel, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor’s first annual report on risk and innovation looked at the importance of understanding the factors that make innovative technologies more or less acceptable to the public. Previous studies on agri-tech had mainly been quantitative and explored fairly broad technologies. They found that attitudes mainly came down to how people weigh up the risks and benefits. The benefits of having a more in-depth and analytical insight into people’s underlying values and thought processes was recognised as a necessary – but, so far, relatively limited – input to shaping multi-million pound research and innovation strategies in the sector. 
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
- Total cost of project: £72,000
- Sciencewise contribution: £36,000, plus £6000 additional funding for the external evaluation 
Government Office for Science
The Government Office for Science (GO-Science) is an organisation of up to 80 permanent staff and is located in London in the offices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It exists to ensure government policies and decisions are informed by scientific evidence and strategic long-term thinking. GO-Science is co-commissioning agent for the dialogue project.
Which? exists to make individuals as powerful as the organisations they deal with in their daily lives. It is now the largest consumer body in the UK with almost 800,000 members: Which? aims to understand consumers and what makes them tick. It operates as an independent, apolitical, group social enterprise working for all consumers and funded solely by our commercial ventures. Which? receive no government money, public donations, or other fundraising income. Which? plough the money from its commercial ventures back into our campaigns and free advice for all. Which? is co-commissioning agent and co-funder for the dialogue project.
Delivery and Evaluation
Following an open call, the following organisations were commissioned to deliver and evaluate the project:
TNS-BMRB (delivery contractor)
TNS BMRB provides knowledge that helps Government, the private sector and the Third Sector plan and care for society.
URSUS Consulting (evaluator)
The project was evaluated by URSUS Consulting, which provides advice on areas including sustainable development and environmental policy to clients in public, private and voluntary sectors. 
Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
- Total public participants: 49
- Total Stakeholders involved: 27
- Experts involved in events: 2 
Project Guidance, Planning and Development
The process was delivered by a core project management team comprising GO-Science, Which? Sciencewise, and the dialogue and evaluation contractors. 
A Government Management Group (GMG) and Advisory Group (AG) were created to provide further guidance on the focus and content of the research and to ensure that the materials presented were correct and neutral in their presentation. Specifically, they guided the balance of expert viewpoints presented in the videos, the selection of case study topics, and the accuracy, relevance, and comprehensibility of information given to respondents.
The Government Management Group comprised 7 members from a range of government departments and bodies with interests in food. The Advisory Group consisted of 7 members and comprised academics, representatives of the food industry and bodies concerned with promoting healthy, sustainable ethical food choices. Full details of members of both the GMG and AG can be found in the final report.
Pilot groups were held during January 2015 and comprised a total of 16 people. They were recruited using free-find methods to reflect a broad spread of people in terms of age (18+), gender, social grade, family status, educational qualifications, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background, a range of dietary requirements and location (urban, suburban or rural). 
The workshops took place in London, Cardiff and Paisley. In total, 49 participants took part in the three workshops. They were recruited using free-find methods using a screening questionnaire to meet a sampling frame with quotas designed in agreement with Which?, Government Office for Science and Sciencewise.
Deliberative research aims to capture a wide range of views – rather than seeking to achieve a representative sample. The attendees were recruited to include a mix of people in terms of:
- Gender – roughly equal ratio of male and female;
- Age – a range reflecting the local population;
- Educational level – reflecting the general spread of qualifications in the population;
- Ethnicity – included a mix of ethnicities in each workshop to reflect the local population, with approximately 10% of the participants being from minority ethnic groups;
- Rural / urban – a mix of localities to reflect local and surrounding area. 
Methods and Tools Used
The research began with a pilot stage comprising a pair of workshops held in London that were designed to explore initial public responses to the issue of food security with the specific aim of testing comprehension of the wide range of stimulus materials that were to be used in the public dialogues. The materials included:
- Paper handouts for each of the case studies – chicken, meat and wheat – that were used to help participants understand the challenges facing the food system;
- A video presentation by Professor Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security, and short videos by food expert contributors. These introduced challenges to the food system from different standpoints, then, later, possible responses to these challenges.
Following this, Workshops were held in London, Cardiff and Paisley, in January and February 2015. During the week prior to the first day of the public dialogues, participants were asked to note the types of foods they bought and their thoughts about the influences on their purchases during one food shopping trip. Materials included:
- Video presentations involving various experts
- Case study handouts
- Work books
Finally, a sample of participants were subsequently followed up by telephone. These interviews explored their reflections on the challenges, solutions and action plans after they had time to think about them more (and to do so in an everyday setting), as well as establishing whether the dialogues had had any impact on their food attitudes or buying behaviour.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The dialogue project was unusual in that it was delivered through a partnership between GO-Science and Which?. It was also unusual in that it had a two-tier governance mechanism with a wide range of internal and external stakeholder input, which was set up before the delivery and evaluation contractors were appointed:
1) A Government Management Group chaired by GO-Science met first in July 2014 and included Defra, the Food Standards Agency, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), BIS and the DH. The Group met again in December 2014 to finalise the choice of case studies, and to suggest sources for the stimulus materials, talking heads videos and the range of food system solutions to be covered in the dialogues. A final meeting in May 2015 reviewed an early version of the final dialogue report and agreed how the report should be launched post-election.
2) An external Advisory Group was set up and chaired by Which? and included about 12 core members. The first meeting agreed the broad scope of the project and identified key challenges in the food system. The second meeting (October 2014) refined the choice of case studies and the broad dialogue event designs. The third meeting (held electronically) reviewed the first draft of stimulus materials. A fourth meeting took the form of individual telephone briefings by Which? and GO-Science to share the key findings. 
Day 1 comprised seven hour events consisting of presentations and discussions.
The primary focus was on food system challenges and issues. These included long-term sustainability, obesity and diet-related illness, food prices and affordability, food wastage, climate change, and water use.
The basis of consumers’ decision making about food purchases and consumption and their initial views about food sustainability issues were explored. Three case studies were presented as examples for consideration and discussion, centering around the production and consumption of wheat, beef and chicken. These were selected as they reflect typical everyday food purchases and allowed participants to discuss decision-making and possible solutions to the food system challenges discussed on Day 2 in an accessible way.
A range of stimulus materials were used and included:
- Video presentations by Professor Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security, and food expert contributors that introduced participants to the challenges facing the food system from different stand points. The contributors represented farming; food producers; retail; Government; and non-Government bodies that campaign for ethics in the food system, more sustainable and healthier food choices by the public;
- Case study hand-outs comprising information and statistics about the range of challenges facing the food system, linked to the production and supply of wheat, beef and chicken. These were designed to instigate discussion and allow different views across the participants to emerge;
- Respondent workbooks to allow participants to record their thoughts and questions throughout the workshop.
Day 2 – Possible solutions to food system challenges
Day 2 similarly comprised seven hour events consisting of presentations and discussions.
The primary focus was on a range of solutions to food system challenges, from behaviour change, to wider use of production processes already being deployed through to novel technologies. This included some of the possible ways to tackle the challenges and issues introduced in Day 1, the previous week. Some of these solutions involved the application of technologies, such as precision agriculture, new feed practices, genetic modification, irradiation, smart labelling, carcass treatments, and lab produced meat. The examples were all related to the three case studies from Day 1, with six solutions presented for beef and five solutions presented for each of chicken and wheat;
Respondents were asked if their views and behaviours about food had changed as a result of the Day 1 dialogue. For each of the three case studies in turn, respondents considered and discussed the example ‘solutions’. They noted the possible advantages and disadvantages of the ‘solutions’, and conditions under which use was acceptable, then grouped them in terms of possible acceptability. Finally, the respondents worked in small groups to prepare and present ‘action plans’ for tackling food system issues and what they expected Government and the range of parties involved in the food system to do to promote sustainable food production.
The stimulus materials used included:
- Video ‘vox pops’ from food expert contributors reflecting a range of viewpoints from the perspectives of the food industry, Government and other public bodies;
- Full-colour posters presenting each solution;
- A video presentation of a ‘precision agriculture’ proposal;
- Respondent workbooks.
Two months after the final dialogue, the research team attempted to re-contact all those participants who consented to being followed-up for a short telephone interview. The purpose of this was to explore participants’ reflections on the challenges, solutions and action plans after they had time to think about them more (and to do so in an everyday setting) as well as establishing whether any changes in purchasing behaviour that had been seen between the two days of the dialogue had been sustained. 
Key messages from the participants
Participants were very surprised at the food system challenges presented to them. After hearing about some of the challenges facing the food system, participants generally felt that the wider sustainability issues needed to be addressed. These included:
- The impacts of food production on climate change, biodiversity and resources (including water)
- The impacts of climate change on food production, food safety and public health in terms of how food is produced
- Making it easier to make healthy choices
- The level of waste in the food system
- Ethical issues of food production including how animals are reared
- Taking scarce resources through imports from developing countries.
Overall, none of the solutions considered during the workshops was rejected out of hand, although some were approached with a much greater degree of caution and need for reassurance. In considering the range of potential solutions, participants reached for behavioural solutions first as they considered this was something they could do something about. However, they recognised that the extent to which they could change their behaviour was, to some extent, limited by the products available to buy.
Solutions that were of a more technological or scientific nature were acceptable but with differing degrees of support. For example, participants felt that processes they had never heard of (such as irradiation and chlorine washing) and far-reaching technologies (such as genetically modified (GM) and laboratory-produced meat) needed to pass a number of tests before they would become acceptable, including:
- Independent oversight of safety
- Safeguards that the technology was being developed for the wider good rather than exclusively for industry profit
- The same result could not be achieved by alternative means.
Participants recognised they could not address the food system challenges alone and expected government to take the lead in bringing about change by:
- Ensuring that the food industry tackles the issues facing the food system by providing leadership and through greater regulation of farming, manufacturing and production processes
- Ensuring that food products have more informative labelling so that consumers can make better informed choices
- Helping consumers to make affordable, sustainable food choices
- Providing general awareness-raising campaigns and demonstrating how people can change their food buying behaviour so that it is more sustainable.
As there was some distrust of the food industry and government to commit to addressing the issues of food sustainability, participants wanted to see an independent body that acted as a ‘consumer champion’. They expected this champion would be an independent organisation and would:
- Determine the best way forward to address sustainability issues
- Take into account consumer priorities and the need for radical change
- Monitor the long-term effects of food system changes in terms of food safety, impact on public health, impact on the sustainability of farming and food production, and other ethical considerations. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The key results of this dialogue project have been presented by GO-Science and Which? to ministers and directors in key departments, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Department of Health (DH) and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and agencies (including the Food Standards Agency). While the results have already influenced some thinking, it is still early for specific policy impacts to be identified. However, the independent evaluation of the project suggests that the dialogue results will begin to have significant impacts over the period to the end of 2016 through the following routes:
- Feeding findings on public attitudes to food system challenges into Defra, the Global Food Security programme, the Food Standards Agency and DH policies and strategies (e.g. the 25-year plan for food and farming)
- Influencing research and innovation priorities within the Global Food Security programme and Centres for Agricultural Innovation (when they are launched). The dialogue project has contributed a nuanced understanding of the hierarchy of factors at play when the public is weighing up the risks and benefits of different types of technology 
- Making the case for the usefulness of well-run public dialogues in delivering open, balanced, and nuanced opportunities for the public to participate meaningfully in shaping research and innovation agendas. On the basis of this dialogue the need for public dialogue has become a central plank of the narrative for GO-Science’s five year plan; and
- Providing a legacy of materials and lessons on how to communicate food sustainability issues in an accessible and engaging way. 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
What worked well
Overall, this was a small project with potentially wide-ranging policy impacts. The balance of the framing and choice of case studies, the quality of stimulus materials, the considerable learning that participants took from dialogue events and the quality of the analysis will make this project a good demonstrator for what can be achieved through public dialogue to manage risk in these research and innovation areas. Participants were genuinely shocked to learn about the sustainability challenges of current consumption and production patterns. Many reported during the dialogues themselves or in follow-up telephone interviews that they had changed their behaviour, particularly by eating less meat and reducing waste. The main messages from the dialogue were not surprising or newsworthy to policy makers, but the rich detail on how the public balanced risk and benefits, and what underpinned these opinions, were expected to be useful in many specific policy areas.
Collaborative commissioning – the novel partnership between a Government department and Which? consumer organisation has worked very well in terms of broadening the framing of the project, harnessing expertise and resources, and spreading the project management burden. Establishing a good working relationship, and the enthusiasm and time committed by the core management team were key elements of success.
Two-tier governance mechanism – the combination of an internal cross-government policy group and an external Advisory Group has been very effective in ensuring the credibility and robustness of the project (particularly in framing and providing balance), and increasing its potential for medium-term policy impact. With more resources and time, it would have been useful to bring the two groups together or further develop bilateral relationships with the commissioners to maintain momentum within the Advisory Group.
Providing access to broad and balanced expert voices for all participants – for this dialogue project (with its breadth and depth of issues and technologies to be covered, and strongly held views of stakeholder on appropriate solutions) using talking head videos proved an efficient and cost-effective way of getting the same balanced expertise ‘in the room’ in all three locations. Specialists within the commissioning teams were able to answer questions ensuring that all participants felt their questions had been answered. 
What didn’t work as well
Timing – developing accessible and balanced stimulus materials for a broad, but detailed, dialogue project is extremely challenging. In this case, significantly more time was required from the core management team and Government Management Group than expected. Initially conceived as a six-month project, the timeframe proved tight for producing stimulus materials and a final report suitable for wider dissemination. However, all parties agree that this benefited the project. Going forward, it is important to agree the extent to which the commissioned agency may fulfil the role of specialist technical input at the outset, and factor in the time and expertise that may be needed to supplement this by the commissioning bodies. 
Public Engagement on Landscape and Ecosystem Futures in England, Scotland, and Wales
 Sciencewise (2016) “Case Study: Food system challenges”, Sciencewise, March 2016
 Which? (2016) “Food system challenges: Public dialogue on food system challenges and possible solutions”, March 2016
 Sciencewise (2017) “UK food system challenges and the role of innovative production technologies and other approaches in meeting these” (ONLINE), Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110132702/http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/uk-food-system-challenges-and-the-role-of-innovative-production-technologies-and-other-approaches-in-meeting-these/
 URSUS (2015) “Evaluation of public dialogue on UK food supply challenges and solutions and the role of innovative production technologies and approaches in meeting these”, URSUS report, 23rdNovember 2015