Consumers focus on here and now (commentary)

Consumers focus on here and now (commentary)

APPROXIMATELY three-fourths of U.S. households possess a personal computer, and for the sake of argument, let's assume that most of those homes also own some sort of printer.

Now, let's pretend a story (wholly unsubstantiated) is floating around social media claiming that the printer ink production process utilizes chemicals that render the ink potentially carcinogenic.

Given that most of us don't understand the chemistry behind the ink production process, such a claim would likely capture our attention. So, as users of printers, we begin to ask questions of the manufacturers.

We subsequently learn that substance X is included to improve productivity and reduce production costs of the ink. Our research further reveals that the additive possesses no associated quality or safety concerns.

However, if manufacturers opted not to utilize the chemical in question, there'd be a significant decline in production capabilities across the industry, even to the point of creating serious availability concerns. Production deficits would surely lead to higher prices.

My guess is that the general response from consumers would likely be indifference to any of those matters about production and/or cost. Rather, given social media's popular narrative about the manufacturing process (despite no meaningful demonstration of real risk), most consumers would demand the removal of substance X.

That premise is based on several factors.

First, a shift in the process would have no subsequent impact on ink quality; as mentioned, it provides no direct benefit to consumers.

Second, the general public has no vested interest in the manufacturer's profit margins.

Third, claims about an ink shortage would likely fall on deaf ears until there really is a shortage.

The hypothetical scenario illustrates some of the broader thinking when it comes to the use of technology in agriculture. That's especially true on the animal production side.

For example, you can find any number of discussions taking place about the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin, antibiotics, beta agonists, implants, etc.

To be certain, the inclusion of those items in the production process is regulated and safe. Moreover, their utilization makes production more efficient and, thus, provides consumers with an important benefit with respect to cost and availability.

There's no doubt that technology allows the meat and milk industry to utilize fewer resources, be more environmentally judicious and help meet the moral obligation of feeding a hungry world. Take away those technologies, and the outcome would be a diminished supply with higher prices.

However, all of those are indirect benefits that are hard to explicitly demonstrate to consumers. The advantages often seem remote and distant. So, consumers experience no direct benefit (nor adverse influence) from the utilization of those technologies with respect to product quality.

Conversely, utilization of chemical technology on the produce side (e.g., pesticides) can be readily seen: Many of us have bitten into a worm-infested apple, but that's just not the case on the meat side.

Meanwhile, lean finely textured beef ("pink slime") taught us how quickly misrepresentation and distortion can occur; it also demonstrated how powerful the influence can be when media and consumers begin to push back.

What about the need to feed a growing population in an efficient, responsible manner? Sure, that's important, but simple arguments in support of technology based on conjectures of hunger or expense in the future will likely go unheeded — at least in the short run.

Consumers will worry about running out of product or about food being too expensive only when that begins to occur, but until then, the most pressing focus for most consumers is the here and now.

That's because most consumers really don't want to have to think or make decisions about their food; they'd rather be reassured. So, when various concerns (no matter how unfounded) chime in, the default response is generally anti-technology (at least, that seems to be the general trend of late).

Simultaneously, though, the utilization of technology in agriculture is an increasingly important societal discussion for lots of reasons.

That's seemingly an inherent, growing tension and establishes a very hard line to walk. It occurs in a world of ever-accelerating information transfer. Capable leadership, coupled with authentic communication, has never been more important for navigating the challenge.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:12

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