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The food market: demand

For centuries, except for the ‘privileged few’, demand for food focused mainly on those products essential for survival. Today, in industrialised countries at least, food products have become plentiful and inexpensive, and demand more diverse. Evolving lifestyles, environmental and ethical issues and health concerns guide consumer choice.
Marche alimentation demande_big
© Shutterstock / Jack Frog

A demand long met by subsistence farming

The shift from subsistence farming to a market economy began with the great civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, from the 4th millennium BCE. As population increased and cities expanded, part of the population was no longer able to produce its own food (subsistence farming). Thus, there was a development of trade in products essential to survival, but also in products processed by hand or goods brought from distant lands (market economy).

The population of medieval Europe grew almost continuously from the 10th century and, consequently, so did the demand for food. For a long time, agriculture could barely meet the need for basic commodities. However, for a small and privileged sector of the population, demand varied according to fashion and the times. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, costly oriental spices enjoyed great prestige and were traded intensively. In the following century, chocolate, coffee and tea came to the fore. Demand was closely linked to income.

Nowadays, demand for food varies greatly from country to country. In low-income countries with few resources, often more than 70% of the household budget is spent on food and demand focuses mainly on cereals. Resources are plentiful in Europe and the United States, where the proportion of income allocated to food fell steadily over the 20th century and currently amounts to between 10 and 20% of the household budget. For most consumers there, cost is no longer the sole criterion in the choice of food.

Diversified demand in industrialised countries

In industrialised countries that have undergone strong economic growth since the 1960s, commodities have become relatively inexpensive and there is a vast choice of food from around the world. In addition, demand has diversified. Although still governed by income, demand is also influenced by more personal factors, whether ethical, cultural, social, or diet-related.

Pre-cooked and ready-to-eat meals have become very popular. More and more meals are now eaten outside the home and many different kinds of restaurant have developed to meet this demand. Several factors explain this demand for such services, including lack of time, the midday meal eaten out of the home and the importance of leisure time.

Health concerns, the rise in obesity and diseases such as diabetes and cancer play a decisive role in consumer demand for healthier food. Gluten- and lactose-free products have become more popular, whether because of intolerances or out of choice, or because consumers simply feel better when they eliminate one or the other from their diet.

Environmental concerns also guide consumer choice. Sustainable farming takes care of nature. With the globalisation of food, consumers are seeking to reassert their identity and to support local production. As a result, demand for local produce has risen sharply and AOC products (controlled designation of origin) have become guarantees of quality and authenticity. Fairtrade certification is another criterion of choice.