“People act on what they feel and believe, rather than what they know,” said Center for Food Integrity (CFI) CEO Charlie Arnot, who recently shared consumer perceptions and ways to build trust in today’s agriculture gleaned from CFI’s annual survey on Consumer Trust in the Food System.
What are concerns?
Routinely, Americans want safe, affordable, nutritious food above all else, but Arnot said this is a universal expectation and baseline that all agree upon.
Digging deeper, results find concerns about reducing chemicals in food production, humane treatment of farm animals and conservation of soil and water resources.
And while farmers often share with pride that they work to “feed the world,” only 15 percent of respondents strongly agreed it is the United States’ responsibility to do so. More than half, however, strongly agreed that developing countries should be taught to feed themselves, rather than export U.S. food.
Also near the bottom of concerns were maximizing productivity and helping farmers be profitable.
Who is most concerned?
While they aren’t the only ones concerned about food production today, “early adopters” (those with more education and larger interpersonal networks) are more skeptical of today’s food system, said Arnot. “They investigate claims and seek information (mostly on the Internet) and share information they learn with others. They are opinion leaders in their social circles.”
Though more skeptical, Arnot said early adopters are also more rational thinkers, and are more favorable toward change and science. “They want information presented to them in a valid, transparent way,” he said.
Offering credible information on trusted websites, in addition to communicating effectively through a variety of channels will help promote more positive attitudes among early adopters, he said.
Previous CFI research has shown that demonstrating shared values is three to five times more important than demonstrating competence when it comes to building trust.
But consumers have a bias that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle, said Arnot.
Respondents felt commercial farmers’ priorities focus more on profitability and productivity than the humane treatment of farm animals, and that it should be the opposite. The more commercialized the farm, the lower the perception of shared values. For the purpose of the study, a commercial farm was defined as owned by a company and operated by employees, with decisions made by managers and carried out by employees.
Alternatively, respondents were more likely to support the profitability of family farms, defined as being owned and operated by a family, with family members making decisions and family members or employees carrying them out.
No silver bullet
All perceptions aside, Arnot said consumers show a willingness to trust farmers in all systems. But he said effectively communicating shared values is the initial threshold to building support and trust, and until that threshold is crossed, other information has limited effectiveness.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “No single program or initiative will reverse the growing trend of consumer alienation on today’s farms.”
He said programs that break down barriers between food system stakeholders and consumers will contribute to the perception of shared values and in turn build confidence and trust. The examination and potential modification of practices, and increasing transparency and observability in the industry will also build trust, he said.
But for long-term success, those in the food system must consistently engage in practices viewed as aligned with values and expectations of stakeholders, Arnot said.
“Building trust takes time.”