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Trust is increasingly important component of food system

By Matt Reese

Trust.

It is impossible to live in today’s society without some level of trust. If you don’t believe me, just think through your day and take note of how many times you blindly trusted someone you barely knew or never even met. Any time we rely on something that we did not procure ourselves, we are trusting someone to provide us with a safe and reliable product.

We rely on things produced or handled by others for even the most mundane aspects of our lives — brushing your teeth, stopping at a restaurant for lunch, operating vehicles or farm equipment, taking a shower, etc. If the toothpaste, food, equipment, soap, shampoo, etc. is safe, then you never think once about this trust. If there is a problem with any of those products, though, the consequences could be life threatening. That is quite a bit of trust in somebody you have never met. And, not only are you trusting the makers of these products when you use them, you are also trusting the regulatory system responsible for ensuring their safety.

Of course, agriculture has long enjoyed a very high level of trust in this country. For many different reasons, people trust farmers. Unfortunately, though, that trust has been eroding in recent years.

The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) has been researching these changes in consumer perception of agriculture for several years now and recently released some findings for 2012 related to the food system. CFI research has found that, as people lose touch with farmers, they lose the valuable relationships that offer a connection to their food. Without those relationships, there are few opportunities for farmers to actually demonstrate first-hand how they responsibly produce food and facilitate trust.

“Research sponsored by CFI and conducted in partnership with Iowa State University shows that confidence (shared values) is three to five times more important than competence (skill and expertise) in building consumer trust. Specifically, our study measured what drives consumer trust in the areas of food safety, nutrition, worker care, the humane treatment of farm animals and environmental protection,” according to the recent CFI report. “In our subsequent qualitative research we learned
that consumers trust farmers because they believe farmers share their values. Unfortunately, consumers aren’t sure today’s agriculture still qualifies as farming. Why? Generational and geographic distance between farmers and consumers, technological advances in farming, and changes in farm size and structure. We see consumer alienation from agriculture and the food system expressed through concerns about nutrition, food safety, affordability, environmental sustainability, animal well-being and other issues.”

This changing sentiment with regard to food and food issues is having an impact on farms in Ohio, whether you know it or not.

From the CFI report: “Every sector of the food system, whether farmers, manufacturers, branded food companies, grocery stores or restaurants, is under ever-increasing pressure to demonstrate they are operating in a way that is consistent with stakeholder values and expectations. Groups opposed to today’s food system are pursuing litigation, pressuring branded food companies, and initiating legislation to change how the system operates.

Historically when under pressure to change, the industry has responded by attacking the attackers and using science alone to justify current practices. Too frequently, the industry confuses scientific verification with ethical justification. Not only are these approaches ineffective in building stakeholder trust and support, they increase suspicion and skepticism that the food industry is worthy of public trust.”

CFI has found that a better approach to this challenging situation is farmers connecting with consumers through shared values, not science.

“It’s less about trying to convince someone that they should change their values and beliefs and more about helping people understand that what we’re doing is already better aligned with their expectations than they may have thought. That’s a key change in our strategic approach in addressing the challenging issues we face,” the CFI report said.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes more of a relationship to establish trust and demonstrate these shared values than it does to rattle off some science based facts about how agriculture is fantastic in every way. CFI has conducted extensive research on the effective methods of trying to accomplish this, but, if you have been reading this column over the past few months, you’ve seen this research demonstrated through a real life example.

The fascinating journey of Ellen Malloy and Grant Kessler that has been documented at http://onehundredmeals.com provided a perfect example about how it is the relationships between food producer and consumer that are vital to making progress in the uphill battle of re-connecting people with their food. Last winter, Ellen set the ag world abuzz with her rage directed at “Big Ag” and everyone involved with it. This fall, after spending months emailing, visiting and talking with farmers, Ellen and Grant toured Monsanto while accompanied by some of their newly acquired Big Ag friends.

In response to her visit to Monsanto, Ellen wrote a truly remarkable blog that should be a must-read for everyone involved in agriculture. The blog clearly, and simply, demonstrates the gap in understanding that exists out there and the adjustment in understanding that needs to take place to overcome that gap.

Here is an excerpt from Ellen’s blog that covers fear of GMOs, hatred of Monsanto and a lack of understanding of the food system that is so prevalent:

People are happily buying Monsanto’s products (by the way, those products are proudly labeled GMOs). Monsanto just sells them. So, if you are keeping track here, at this point in the blog, it is the farmers that are “the problem” because they are creating the demand.

But I am not going to stop there. You likely already realized that the farmers are actually selling their (also labeled as GMOs) products to someone, too. And those buyers, by buying the GMO products, are telling the farmers that it is OK to plant GMOs. So, again, keeping track, the blame moves yet another step away from Monsanto. Right now, it is really PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé or Kraft Foods (etc.) that are next in line to shoulder the blame because they are creating the demand that lets the farmers know GMOs are OK.

(And, if you are keeping track, you’ve already figured out that the point where the products lose the GMO label is when they leave PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods and travel to your food store. Which means, they’re the ones to whom you should be directing your label rage, folks. Don’t pack a lunch with Oreos in it if you are planning to attend your local, neighborhood Occupy Monsanto protest.)

Of course, and I think you already figured this out too, PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods all sell to someone, who is creating demand for their products. That someone is actually the end-use consumer. That someone is, well, me, for one. So, it follows that, as the originator of demand, me and others like me, actually are the epicenter of blame. By buying products, we are the ones who send the demand notice that ripples up the supply chain to Monsanto’s seeds.

And if you think about it, you know this already, that means you, too.

 

Of course, the consumer knowledge gap that is demonstrated here seems ridiculous to many involved with agriculture because this kind of thing is so basic to what we understand — food economics 101. That is the problem. We take for granted that people understand this, but they do not. And, really, why should they? The average American has spent their entire life not thinking about where their food comes from because they do not really have to — they open the fridge, go to the grocery store or stop in a diner and there is the food. Our incredible food system has trained them to do that.

In addition, consumers are bombarded with every kind of fear inspiring misinformation that can be concocted. Who would blame them for some confusion about their food?

The only way this kind of thing can be undone is through relationships founded upon trust. You can say one thing, but demonstrating it is entirely different, and that can’t be accomplished in a 30-second conversation in an airplane or an elevator. This kind of relationship takes months of conversations with numerous farmers that have demonstrated that their values, and the values of concerned consumers, are really more alike than different.

The responsibility and solution for this problem lands on both sides of the widening consumer-farmer gap. Consumers need to take the initiative to learn about their food if they are so concerned about it, and farmers need to listen and be more open to facilitating the relationships that can foster trust. Ellen sums it up with this:

 

Because the thing our trip to Monsanto taught me is that if I really do want the food supply to change, if I really want to make a difference in how our country feeds itself, feeds the world, I have to start with myself.

And you do too.

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