We have a long way to go until consumers are involved actively

Chocolate and nuts being processed in a Swiss confiserie.

Consumers are considered and consulted, but their influence on the regulation of the food system remains limited.

Which developments have shaped the range of food available in Switzerland over the last few decades? What status does nutrition have in society and who decides what our food system should look like? A research group at the University of Lausanne and at Agridea addressed these questions in NRP 69. They published the results from their "Citizen consumer" project in spring 2018 in the book "Manger suisse. Qui décide?" Dr Rémi Schweizer, an expert on political analysis, explains some of the key findings.

In your book you investigate the development of Switzerland's food sector over the last few decades. What trend did you identify?

Rémi Schweizer: The demand among consumers for local and ecologically produced foods – and their willingness to pay for them – have increased in recent decades. Supply has also adapted to this trend, with various labels and brands that stress "Swissness" or more ecological production methods. We wanted to understand what role the consumers play in this development and in the market environment that the state creates for these labels.

In your book you talk of foods being "politicised". What do you mean by that?

We found that nutrition is more and more of a public issue and the subject of increasingly polarised political debate. This is reflected, for example, in several popular initiatives that various parties and interest groups have recently launched in an attempt to influence our food system. It shows that the transition to more sustainable nutrition systems is not just a question of technology and personal habits but also a political issue.

You investigated the decision-making processes underlying today's nutrition system. Which are the main stakeholders that shape these processes?

Four key players shape decision-making processes in the field of nutrition: the producers, the food processing companies, the distributors and the consumers. Alliances and relationships between these key stakeholders are constantly changing, depending on their respective economic interests or shifting attitudes. However, our research shows that the consumers do not always have a say. They contribute to ideas and suggestions, and they are considered and consulted. But they play only a passive role when important political and economic decisions are made. That is paradoxical, because there is a tendency in scientific literature, the media and public perception to focus on the role of the consumers.

Do you see any way in which consumer participation could be improved?

The consumers' role in decision-making processes could be given more weight – for example, by extending the consumer protection organisations' right of appeal, by admitting class actions or by involving consumer organisations more closely in public-sector activities such as food inspections or in the steering bodies for specific labels. In addition, better and more consistent information about the origin of foods and their impact on the environment could help consumers to shape the food system more consciously through their own choices.