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Balancing consumer preferences with reality

USDA Pilgrim's CEO Lovette
Pilgrim’s Chief Executive Officer & President Bill Lovette speaks at the 94th Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum (AOF) "The Roots of Prosperity" in Arlington, Va., Feb. 22, 2018.
Agricultural food chain needs to help consumers separate fact from fiction in today’s changing consumer-focused food markets.

In a growing age of consumer focus, there is a need for those in agriculture to help balance consumer perceptions with reality. This was a reoccurring theme of speakers during the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Outlook Forum held Feb. 22-23 in Arlington, Va.

James Collins, chief operating officer at DowDuPont’s agricultural division, said everyone in the food chain needs to better resonate with stakeholders.

He said for farmers, even if consumers aren’t their main focus, consumers should be “kept out there as our North Star.” The need to increase transparency continues to become an opportunity for advancement, such as how to document the reduction of inputs and provide sustainability metrics.

Just how is sustainability defined? Bill Lovette, president and chief executive officer of Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., said to him, it means responsibly meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to responsibly meet their needs.

Collins said it is important for agricultural companies to look at what role they can play in helping consumers separate fact from fiction. “We need to think of new ways to engage with younger consumers. We need to identify our own influencers -- preferably ones with their own social media following -- to help tell our story,” he suggested.

Lovette said there is a growing consumer desire for more locally produced foods, but in the U.S., where food costs are so low, many consumers take things for granted. “We live in a world here in the U.S. where consumer interest, perception and preferences are not in alignment,” he added.

Pilgrim’s supplies 47 million chickens per week, accounting for one of five in the U.S. By 2050, Lovette said the world is going to need 120% more poultry, or 100 million more tons of chicken. In order to meet the goal of increasing food production 70% by 2050, the focus needs to continue to be on producing more with fewer resources.

“In the United States, we have a push for locally grown and organic, but this isn’t in line with producing enough food to feed the world long term,” Lovette said. He explained that if every American consumer demanded every bit of food in the U.S. to be organic, it would require 100 million additional acres of cropland domestically. The top eight commodities now use 255 million acres, with only 320 million acres available for production.

“Adding 100 million acres is not going to happen; it’s not practical,” Lovette said of balancing consumer preferences with reality.

Joe Stone, corporate vice president and director at Cargill, said the simple act of sharing information can be completely transformative. The company did a pilot blockchain technology project for its Honeysuckle White turkey line that linked up 65,000 turkeys with the complete production story of each turkey sold and feature videos on how and where the turkey was produced.

Stone said the response from consumers was overwhelming and highlighted how transparency builds trust in the food system.

“Part of our job is making a better case for responsible technologies,” Stone said. This includes connecting to social values such as stewardship, animal welfare and human health.

“We must not forget consumer acceptance of what we make and how we make it is earned, not taken,” he said.

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