Food is serious business, especially when you don’t have enough. Skyrocketing inflation, extreme weather and supply chain issues have converged to accelerate and exacerbate what was already a growing global food crisis. According to the World Bank, wheat prices have increased 40 percent since the start of the war in Ukraine in February, and it’s no wonder: Ukraine and Russia account for a quarter of global wheat exports with multiple countries importing 75 percent or more of their wheat from those two countries. In the U.S., prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased 13 percent for the year ending February 2022, the largest yearly increase since 1979. In some parts of Latin America and Africa, people regularly spend 50 to 60 percent of their income on food.
Food is a human rights issue, a social justice issue, a climate issue, and a matter of life or death for the billion undernourished people around the world, and the scores more who experience food insecurity. Given the strain on our food systems and the broken state of access and equity, it’s not surprising that Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer data shows that overall trust in the food & beverage sector is slightly up among the general population, but it remains below pre-pandemic highs, with a delta between low-income and high-income people of 9 points globally (62 percent vs. 71 percent). This income-based trust gap is highest in the Netherlands, at 21 points, followed by Thailand, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Indonesia, with 20-, 18-, 17- and 15-point gaps respectively. Three of the world’s largest food exporters — U.S., Germany and France — scored among the lowest on trust, with the U.S. down six points since last year.
Trust is highest among businesses and NGOs and continues to remain low for government and media. And while there is a generally high level of trust in employers and businesses, there’s also considerable expectation for business to be more engaged on societal issues, including on topics like climate change and systemic injustice.
The lack of trust in government runs deep. Not only do consumers not trust government’s ability to solve societal problems, but government is also seen as a dividing force in society (48 percent) with media not far behind (46 percent). Since 2012, trust is down across traditional media, social media and search engines, and 76 percent of respondents cited concern about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.
On the flip side, consumers are looking to businesses and NGOs to act as competent and effective drivers of positive change. “Local” has long been a virtue/quality signifier in food and beverage for decades. We see a similar correlation between familiarity and trust in individuals and leaders. While trust in CEOs overall is up slightly, trust in “my CEO” rose three points, to 66 percent among employees of the F&B sector. Even higher was trust in “my co-workers,” at 74 percent among employees of the F&B sector, only slightly behind scientists at 75 percent among the general population. When it comes to income-based trust inequality, quality information is the great equalizer. When low-income respondents are well-informed (follow news regularly, seek out quality information), they are more trusting than high-income respondents who are not well informed.
For food industry CEOs, this is an especially critical time to lead on the urgent, global issues that are inextricably linked to the business they’re in. Our research shows an expectation for businesses to play a broader societal role, and for CEOs to personally lead from the front on change. When we look at the General Population, over eight in 10 believe CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or work their company has done to benefit society. And more than six in 10 employees in the food and beverage sector expect their company’s CEO to speak publicly about highly topical and sometimes controversial social and political issues they care about — an expectation that has increased significantly since we asked this question three years ago.
The magnitude of the issues we face, and the devastating human costs associated with them, can lead to a sense of hopelessness. There is little trust that government and societal leaders have the competence and integrity required to even begin to address a broken and burdened system. But food companies and their CEOs, in partnership with NGOs, have an important role to play. The research shows that all stakeholders hold business accountable. Sixty-one percent of employees in the food and beverage sector choose a place to work based on their beliefs and values; and among the general population 64 percent invest based on their beliefs and value; and fully 88 percent of institutional investors subject ESG to the same scrutiny as operational and financial considerations.
Food justice is social justice. Everybody should have access to affordable nutrition. Buying sustainably shouldn’t be a luxury. Addressing climate change is every business’s business. Companies, from multi-nationals to startups, are living proof that actively leading with purpose to generate meaningful change for people and planet builds trust.
Heidi Hovland is Global Chair, Food and Beverage.