March 12, 2016
Farmers can talk all day long about the science and academic research data behind their practices. But are consumers listening? According to the Center for Food Integrity chief executive officer, Charlie Arnot, they probably are not.
Arnot spoke about transparency in food and farming at the annual Governor's Ag Conference in Kearney recently. "Transparency is no longer optional," Arnot told conference participants. "Consumers are not willing to pay a premium for transparency. It is expected. And there is a penalty for not being transparent."
FOOD TRANSPARENCY: Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer for the Center for Food Integrity, said producers need to consistently earn consumer trust.
And, the way we've been offering transparency has not been resonating with consumers. Typically, farmers and farm organizations have answered consumer skepticism about food production practices with sound facts based on scientific data. That is important, Arnot said, but it doesn't hit home with consumers.
"People have become accustomed to being skeptical of institutions. Because of consolidation of the food and farming industry in recent decades, they often think of us as institution," he said. "The more they think of us as an institution, the more shared values are important. People are more likely to make decisions about what they feel than what they know."
During his presentation, Arnot suggested three ways farmers can offer more transparency in their production systems and gain trust with consumers.
1. Use shared values to engage the public. He said that consumers understand that farmers need to be profitable, but they also want them to be accountable. "The public wants us to be forthcoming, not just honest," Arnot said. "Trust is built on transparency. Our practices must reflect our values." According to consumer studies, shared values are three to five times more important than science and facts in food production. "People crowdsource their knowledge, so they will get their information from other people they trust before they accept it from an academic institution," Arnot said.
2. Open the digital door to today's agriculture and find ways to exhibit transparency through it. Arnot suggested that farmers use digital platforms to provide avenues for transparency. He said that we should embrace skepticism in society. It is just a part of our lives today. "Who you are is as important to consumers as what you know," he said. "So communicate your shared values and let people know that you care. Share your story" through digital platforms and social media. But he reminded farmers to make sure their practices and systems are what they say they are, so they can deliver on their promises.
3. Commit to engaging with consumers early, often and consistently. He suggested responding to consumer skepticism with understanding and empathy, acknowledging their concerns and relating our own values that match those concerns. "We've always assumed that if we educate consumers, they will come to our side," Arnot said. "They can't do that unless they know that you want to do things right. We need to consistently maintain their trust."
If you'd like to learn more about Arnot's presentation, visit the Center for Food Integrity website.
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