Without consumer trust, agricultural producers can expect more regulation and associated costs. That was one of the messages from Charlie Arnot from the Center for Food Integrity during last month’s National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s annual conference. The conference theme was “Consumers’ stake in today’s food production.”
Arnot says farmers’ and ranchers’ freedom to operate depends largely on a “social license,” which requires public trust and a belief that agricultural activities and production practices are consistent with expectations of consumers. That social license allows producers flexibility in their businesses and a degree of self regulation. But if consumer trust is lost, agricultural production moves toward “social control,” featuring greater regulation, litigation and higher production costs.
The agricultural sector, Arnot says, sometimes misses the mark in working to build consumer trust. We tend to stress competence — saying we know what we’re doing and showing data to prove it — when consumers are more interested in values. Shared values are three to five times more important in building trust than demonstrating competence, he says. So we need to first convince consumers we’re doing the right thing, then show them the data.
The public senses a change in the way food is produced, but they don’t understand the implications of that change. They trust farmers, Arnot says, but they’re not sure that today’s production is farming. We need to do a better job of telling our story.
We can tell consumers that farmers in the United States today produce 333 percent more corn on 11 percent fewer acres than in 1950, or that we produce 63 percent more milk with 58 percent fewer cows. The average U.S. farmer today feeds 155 people compared with 30 in 1950. In 1908, Americans spent 50 percent of their income on food, while today the figure is around 8 percent. But these data do not tell the whole story. Ethics are top-of-mind for consumers, so we need to refine the message, stressing that increased productivity means less land, less water and less environmental impact for the same unit of food production. And we need to demonstrate that even as farms grow larger, producers remain committed to animal care, environmental protection and feeding a hungry world.
Above all, Arnot says, the agricultural sector needs to listen to consumers and acknowledge their concerns, then demonstrate shared values. Our tendency is to fight back with data refuting what we see as misconceptions. A better approach could be to say, “Yes, we’re concerned about that too. Here are the ways we’re working to ensure we do the right thing.”