DECADES ago, if someone had a question about where food came from, they asked a family member at the dinner table, and someone had a connection and the right answer.
Today, the general public is becoming more disconnected from the food system and, in turn, has created new challenges in communicating truths.
During a roundtable discussion at the recent World Food Prize Symposium focusing on sustainability issues of the global food security debate, Chris Policinski, president and chief executive officer for Land O' Lakes Inc., shared some insight on that changing dynamic:
In 1930, one farmer fed 10 people. Today, one farmer feeds 155 people. In 1930, 25% of income was spent on food, whereas today, that has dropped to 10%. Farmers made up 22% of the U.S. workforce in 1930, and now, they make up just 2%.
During that same time frame, farms got bigger and increased output while adopting safe, proven technologies.
Policinski noted that farmers are entrepreneurs and quick adopters of technology. However, instead of being rewarded for their innovative spirit and productivity, consumer hotlines are hearing that "big is bad" and that "technology is good — just not in my food," he added.
Policinski explained that if those who are involved in agriculture don't engage in the discussion and define the importance of agriculture and innovation, it goes undefined or will be defined by others as nostalgic.
Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture, added that individuals who do not understand agriculture but make decisions for those who do are "not just a bother but a real risk."
Northey said there's a need to communicate issues of importance to agriculture in a way that brings those non-agricultural individuals into the understanding about the kinds of sciences and complexities involved and the need to innovate in a way that captures public interest.
He's helping do that in Iowa by driving new voluntary, science-based nutrient standards to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus that allow farmers to increase the biology of their soil and improve productivity while also providing tangible environmental benefits to the general public.
Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, said future products from his company will no longer be marketed by their productivity gains, which are evident, but, rather, on outcomes that resonate with the general public.
For instance, he said more customer-embraced innovations in the pipeline will focus on ways for livestock operations to generate less methane or less waste.
Policinski stated that the industry needs to inject positive stories about where agriculture is going into the future as a way of building trust and confidence. An example, he said, is highlighting the ways precision planting reduces waste and increases efficiency with fewer trips across the field.
Consumer research shows that 95% of consumers are neutral about or supportive of using technology to produce food.
In fact, a review of 34 studies in 26 countries representing nearly 100,000 consumers found that most consumers make purchases based on taste, cost and nutrition (Figure). The study found that another 4% of consumers purchase foods based largely on lifestyle factors (ethnicity, vegetarianism, support for local/organic suppliers, etc.).
Only a small fringe segment opposes technology and wants to impose restrictions on production practices, Simmons pointed out.
Food irradiation was a technology that never saw its full potential because of consumer backlash. Simmons said it's important to make sure new technologies and innovation don't meet with the same fate.
Going on offense rather than defense, it's important to make sure messaging is targeted at that 95% as well as preventing "luxury" consumers from becoming food activists.
Simmons challenged that too much information on consumer desires is derived from aided questions on surveys as well as customer service/inquiry lines and said instead, the industry should be looking at SKU data and actual supermarket purchases.
"We cannot afford to misinterpret what the consumer wants," he said.
Policinski explained that public opinion is a precursor to public policy. Continued public investment in agriculture is crucial to help feed a growing world population.
"We're going to have to get the public to say (investing in agriculture) is important," he added, noting that it's not only a moral obligation to help feed a projected global population of 9 billion by 2050 but also crucial to conserving today's resources and the environment as well as protecting national security.
When a small percentage of people start to define "good" and "bad" foods and the characterization of good and bad farms based on size rather than practices, the policies that are being pushed do not line up with the reality of today's agriculture.
Sue Finn, registered dietician and president of the American Council for Fitness & Nutrition, said it is important to educate the public on common sense and balance instead of just focusing on one food ingredient to solve all health problems.
Finn said nobody can do the messaging alone, but partnerships allow for the combination of talents.
For instance, her association is blending its talents with the likes of the American Soybean Assn., National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. and Elanco and even is teaming up with farmers who are also registered dieticians to share the positive messages agriculture brings to the plate.
Educating the public can also come from more positive impressions with the media, Simmons said. "Let's balance this debate" and talk about the advances made to help feed more people through innovation, he suggested.
Finn added that "we've got to be louder than those who create fear. There are those who have created fear out in the public, and that's unfortunate, not only in this country but worldwide."
Finn explained that transparency is needed not just regarding what is already known but also about what might not be known.
"Transparency is the fastest road to trust," Simmons added. "We need to raise the bar on one another and find ways to be transparent. If you're not transparent and vulnerable, the trust of the 98% (of those not involved in agriculture) will come to us quickly."