Farmers need to build trust with consumers

Jane Metcalf Correspondent
Now Media Group


To tell agriculture's story and gain acceptance in consumers' eyes, farmers need to engage consumers early, often and consistently.

That was part of the message from Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), as he spoke to members of the American Farm Bureau Federation here on Sunday at their annual meeting.

CFI is a national non-profit organization devoted to building consumer trust and confidence in today's food system.

Arnot, an articulate advocate for agriculture, once worked for Premium Standard Farms, a vertically integrated hog business based in Missouri. Because of the perception that Premium Standards Farms was mishandling its livestock manure, consumers filed odor-nuisance lawsuits and led the effort to enact strict state laws that forced the company to adopt practices that increased its cost of production by six times more than its competitors in other states.

Engaging the public

With that experience as a foundation, Arnot clearly understands that the consequence of not talking to consumers about agriculture can result in onerous rules and regulations on production agriculture and food processing.

Arnot acknowledged agriculture has a number of hot-button topics about which producers and consumers may not agree —treatment of animals, right-to-farm laws, labeling of foods, agrichemical use, GMOs, 'large' farms and more.

The best way to begin engaging with the public about agriculture is by letting them know you share the same values. For example, communicate that you share the same genuine concerns that animals are treated well or that the food our children eat is safe, Arnot explained.

Building that foundation then allows farmers to expand the conversation about today's agriculture, illustrating their commitment to 'doing what's right'.

Arnot noted that farmers know food is more affordable, safer and more available than it has ever been, and yet consumers are more skeptical than ever. He believes the skepticism has its roots that trace back to 1968 and the generation of young adults who, in that year, saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, participated in Vietnam protests and watched TV coverage of riots at the Democratic National Convention.

Building trust

Until that time, the government was very proficient at controlling the messaging about events going on in the world. With television news coverage, people became skeptical about what they were told by newscasters and the trustworthiness of the government.

Public trust of institutions has declined so significantly over the last 40 years that many people are skeptical about much of what they hear and read, and that skepticism is spread to consumers' perception of food and food production, he added.

With television and social media, messaging about food production is difficult to control. Added to that, the last 40 years has seen a significant number of consolidations, integration and industrialization of food production, and just as consumers no longer trust what large institutions tell them, they have grown increasingly skeptical about what they are told by an increasingly industrialized food complex.

'Consumers trust farmers, but they're not sure they trust farming,' Arnot explained.

Significant changes have occurred in communications over the last 40 years. Whereas 'authority' was once granted primarily to those holding an office, authority is now granted through relationships, he said.

Improving relationships

While broad social consensus used to be driven by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, there is now no single dominant social group. Instead of communications being formal and direct, today's communications venues are informal. And, instead of believing progress is inevitable, today's consumers believe progress is possible if it is in the best interests of society.

Arnot stressed the importance of developing a trustful relationship with consumers. When agriculture or other institutions have the trust of consumers, they are allowed social license or the privilege to operate with a minimum of formalized restrictions, he said.

Social license is balanced against rigid bureaucratic regulations. Social license is based on trust, and trust involves confidence, the influence of others and competence.

Arnot believes agriculture has been telling its story incorrectly.

'We have to operate differently in this new environment,' he said.

Too many people have tried to counter negative stories about agriculture and food with science. If consumers would learn about the science behind certain practices, they would believe in it, farmers often say.

Shared values influential

But research by CFI published in 2009 by the Journal of Rural Sociology shows that shared values are three to five times more influential in shaping opinions than is telling someone about the science behind it.

'Shared values are more important than facts,' Arnot stressed. '. . . We have been doing it backwards.'

Producers used to think that they could 'explain the facts' of what they do or the science behind it, and the discussion with consumers would be over and consumers would be convinced, Arnot said. But, now consumers look to a variety of sources — including blogs, family members and online friends who may be ill-informed — to shape their opinions. Farmers need to be among those who help shape consumers' opinions.

'We have to be willing to engage with them about who we are and what we do,' he added.

Arnot told producers that, with the wealth of smart phones and recording devices, they need to assume someone is watching them all the time. And, he added, if producers are not comfortable with that thought, they need to ask themselves why.

Transparency key

Transparency is the most powerful tool those in the food industry can use to build trust, and transparency is no longer an option. Those in agriculture need to get over the attitude of 'we have nothing to hide and it's none of your business anyway,' Arnot stressed.

Research completed in 2015 by CFI showed increasing transparency increased consumer trust. Arnot added that he was shocked by one thing the research showed: Consumers now expect food companies to take greater responsibility for the treatment of animals than farmers.

The implications of that belief are showing up in the marketplace with food companies, for example, requiring farmers to follow or abstain from certain production practices.

Arnot encouraged everyone in agriculture to engage consumers in a discussion about what they do. He stressed that the discussion should begin with shared values.

Communicating shared values — like the concern about quality, safe food — makes technical information more relevant and accepted by consumers. Those in agriculture should embrace consumers' questions and skepticism, then tell them about their own practices, why they do what they do and offer resources so consumers can make their own decisions.