Agvocacy: Winning a War of Words

by Sara Steever
May 29, 2013

Part of this article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Emerge, a publication by South Dakota Corn Utilization Council and South Dakota Corn Growers Association. We appreciate the efforts of their tireless staff in educating consumers and advocating best practices in agriculture.

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There is a very real struggle going on globally and in this country to maintain the freedom to farm in the only way that can end hunger in a food insecure world. To date, it has been a battle of facts versus emotions. As educational ambassadors for agriculture, farmers and industry professionals must choose their words carefully and remember that facts may win arguments, but not the hearts and minds of consumers.

We know our greatest chance at food security is to ground agriculture in science and technology—the very science and technology that put facts and logic on our side. So knowing that, are you as puzzled as I that consumer sentiment is putting serious market pressure on how you farm?

I recently heard Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, speak at the 4th South Dakota Food Roundtable. Charlie was clear in stating that consumers trust farmers because they feel they share similar values, but consumers are not certain that modern agriculture qualifies as farming.

How did farming get separated from agriculture—at least in the eyes of consumers? It’s a bit like politics: voters might be angry with Congress, but they like their own senators and representatives. When consumers feel a personal connection with a farmer, they trust that farmer. The problem is that consumers are no longer connected to agriculture. To communicate with them we have to build a bridge of trust.

New Research on What Works

The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) both have important research out on effective communications within agriculture.

CFI’s emphasis was on earning and maintaining “The Social License.” Essentially, the more farmers (or agribusinesses) are trusted, the more freedom they have to operate. If they lose trust, then they are legislated or regulated.

This trust stems from shared values. The consumer needs to believe that farmers behave in a way that is consistent with their ethics, values and expectations. When does this trust level matter? Each time a consumer votes with their wallet or a ballot.

How do we build that trust? Let’s start at home. I can speak directly about facts with family and friends because I already have their trust and share their values. They already know how much I care, but what about the rest of the population?

Frankly, consumers aren’t really all that interested in feeding the world. Their world is a much smaller and very personal place, surrounded by trusted sources of information that are familiar and comfortable. And not involved in agriculture.

Our new reality is that we can talk all we want about providing an abundant, nutritious food supply, but it only prompts consumers to worry about obesity and health issues. And then they wonder about our motives. Of course we react to the argument with facts and logic, but it’s not about the facts. And logic will not overrule the emotion that is at the core of the issue.

Making a Connection

The truth is that we are all emotional beings. We all want to live healthy lives, raise healthy children and be good stewards of the land. And what we have in common with people outside of farming is really the secret to communicating the message of agriculture. Recognizing someone else’s concerns, factual or not, is the first step to gaining trust in a conversation.

If GMOs are worrisome, then begin the conversation with the long-term health of your own family before you relate it to feeding other families in food insecure parts of the world. If fertilizer runoff is the issue, then start with the water you drink and explain how your farming practices protect our water resources. When animal treatment is a topic, express how you care for your animals and your outrage at those who are abusive. Share that you are constantly working to improve farming practices.

Strength in Numbers

Ag advocacy is only growing in importance as large players, like Kroger and McDonald’s, succumb to pressure brought about as consumers’ emotions trump agriculture’s science. If we want to keep the freedom to make the best decisions for our farms, we have to show that our values and practices match those of the people who buy our products.

Make opportunities to demonstrate transparency on your own operation. Lend your voice to the chorus and remember that its power is in the personal. Acknowledge concerns and share your story. If you are an industry professional, make your stories personal by knowing and understanding the farmers and farming practices closest to you. Many small connections to shared values will win their hearts and minds.

References

Center for Food Integrity, “2012 Consumer Trust in the Food System Research

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, “2012 Research Roadmap

Yale Law School, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus

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