What Consumers Think About Food & Farming
Everywhere you turn these days, there’s a growing barrage of campaigns that seemingly scrutinize agriculture. Just think about it: A&W’s “no antibiotics” and “no added hormones” focus, the annual “March Against Monsanto”, Loblaw’s “meat sourced with integrity”; Sobey’s “Certified Humane” program fronted by Chef Jamie Oliver.
It’s all a bit disheartening and somewhat scary. At first glance, these sorts of campaigns seem to imply that farmers don’t care about what they’re feeding people or how they go about producing food. But do consumers really think that way?
The 2012 Ipsos Reid Study of Consumer Attitudes Towards Food and Farming conducted by Farm & Food Care Ontario demonstrates that the general public believes otherwise. In fact, the study shows that farmers:
- rate next to veterinarians in believability regarding animal care in consumers’ estimation
- were beat out by only CFIA, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, nutrition professors and dietitians in terms of believability related to food safety
And there’s more good news. The same study indicated that consumers want to know how their food is produced. Also interesting is that in a recent Food Demand Survey by Oklahoma State University, taste, safety, and price remain consumers’ most important values when purchasing foods. So, in reality, consumers’ priorities really haven’t changed much from say, 50 years ago, despite all the hype we see in the news.
The question is how do we connect with consumers about farming and food production most effectively?
A lot of us try to address negative press and the growing consumer demand for organic, non-GMO food, etc. with logic. “Scientific facts”, however, haven’t been particularly effective in countering the arguments for “No GMOs” or “hormone free”. A recent study focusing on GMOs demonstrated that the filters consumers base their opinions on are intuitions and emotions, which are largely unconscious, reactive and not at all discerning when dealing with complex situations. The same thinking can be applied in other scenarios. Scare tactics and misinformation such as “pink slime” and “fish-genome tomatoes”, although illogical in the scientific sense, stick in the consumer’s mind because they appeal to people’s intuitions and emotions.
With less than 2% of consumers having direct links to the farm, people don’t have the opportunity to learn about farming and what it takes to put food on their tables.
It’s also that consumers just don’t know. With less than 2% of consumers having direct links to the farm, people don’t have the opportunity to learn about farming and what it takes to put food on their tables. Given that they may know little about farming and food production, consumers are more easily led by questions that they may not understand. For instance, a recent Gallup public opinion poll conducted in the United States indicated that 32 percent of respondents agreed that “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” It may be that the general public is confusing “animal welfare” with “animal rights”. In the Oklahoma food demand study, 80% of those polled want food containing DNA to be labelled. Would the average person understand that question and its implications? Not likely.
Although it’s still a small portion of the population that are animal rights/environmental activists, their influence has been formidable, as evidenced by how restaurants and grocery stores market their products. Just what does “Certified Humane” mean anyway? Gluten-free? Most consumers don’t have a clue, but they believe the marketing, without the critical thinking that is necessary to truly understand.
The 21st century challenge may have more to do with ensuring that farmers and ranchers maintain – and even strengthen – the trust they have with consumers.
Consumers will continue to make their choices based on the information that is most readily available, intuitively and emotionally, no matter the circumstances. It’s up to us to figure out how to work with that fact.
Over the years, farmers and ranchers in Saskatchewan have faced challenges, from the weather to commodity prices to pests and disease. Many of these we couldn’t do much about. The 21st century challenge may have more to do with ensuring that farmers and ranchers maintain – and even strengthen – the trust they have with consumers. It’s about retaining the social licence to operate that we’ve always had.
On the flip side, the current situation has also presented incredible opportunities. Would we be looking to seek genuine, meaningful connections with consumers if the animal and environmental activists hadn’t come on the scene with such force? If the latest health concerns and dietary trends, fads and fallacies weren’t making us rethink farming and food production practices?
So if we look at these challenges as opportunities, we can turn our thinking around and be more proactive in our approach. Let’s embrace these opportunities as we move forward.
Kim Kennett, Communications Specialist, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan
The Real Dirt on Farming Speakers’ Bureau Manual, Farm & Food Care Foundation, 2015.