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Skeptical consumers want transparency, credible information
A large number of consumers are uninformed and uninterested in food issues, limiting the opportunity for farmers to reach out to them.
That was the bad news from the research presented at the Center for Food Integrity’s (CFI) National Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture.
The good news was that CFI identified a key consumer group that is actively seeking information about food production and represents farmers’ best opportunity to build public trust in what they do. The result, CFI believes, will be limited regulation and a better business climate for food production.
These consumers, labeled “early adopters,” also were identified as opinion leaders, have larger interpersonal networks and are more rational, less dogmatic and favorable toward science. They also are more likely to be women.
However, early adopters tend to be more concerned about food production and are skeptical of the conventional food system.
CFI’s research also showed that it is not effective for farmers to justify their practices to these consumers by talking about efficiency or productivity.
“Consumers didn’t ask if we were doing a good job; they asked if we were doing the right thing,” said Charlie Arnot, CFI executive director.
That means farmers must communicate based on ethics and show they share consumers’ values.
“If it’s talking points, we’re doomed, because it has to be authentic,” Arnot said.
Consumers turning toward the Internet
The promising news for farmers is that consumers are turning away from local television and toward the Internet to get information about food production. That gives farmers expanded opportunities to engage them at a much lower cost.
When asked, 86 percent of early adopters said they recently searched online for information on food nutrition, 79 percent for food safety, 49 percent for the use of technology to grow food, 44 percent for the humane treatment of farm animals and 44 percent for environmentally sustainable farming.
However, through several discussions, it was apparent that consumers struggle to find credible sources on food issues. During a panel discussion, Chicago-area mom blogger Emily Paster was asked how much science plays a role in her decision-making.
“Science is not monolithic,” she replied, noting that various studies often provide conflicting results. “There is no truth with a capital T.”
Likewise, during a consumer panel discussion, another mom said she believes the truth is in the middle between what agricultural groups and their critics claim.
“I want to know what the real truth is,” she said.
Arnot said it’s important to acknowledge the pros and cons of all production methods and to support choice because these consumers will bristle toward one-sided information.
Who are credible sources?
CFI’s research shows early adopters generally consider university experts, doctors and dieticians to be credible sources. They also appear to trust what they can see above what they’re told. For example, a video tour of a farm is seen as a much better source of information about the humane treatment of animals than the opinion of a farmer. As one consumer noted, she bought organic milk because she had visited an organic dairy and saw how it was produced.
“I trust what I’m seeing,” she said, and “I believe you, unless someone gives me reason not to.”
Arnot said to be seen as credible, it boils down to “show me your credentials, or show me how you do it.”That means farmers should find ways to increase what Arnot described as the “observability” or transparency in food production.
Janie Gabbett, executive editor of Meatingplace, pointed to Cargill’s willingness to give The Oprah Show an all-access tour of one of its slaughterhouses.
“Have the courage of conviction that you’re doing it right,” Gabbett said.
When one agricultural industry panelist said she didn’t believe edited activist videos provided transparency, another reminded that, “If there’s something going on in our operation that we don’t want on film, then don’t do it.”
After two days of listening to consumers and media representatives, Mace Thorton, American Farm Bureau’s deputy director of public relations, said it was clear that “everybody wants more transparency rather than less.”