Why aren’t food producers more interested in (or more capable of) finding common ground with consumers?

Canadian consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it’s grown. Farmers and producers want to reach out and share information about how they produce safe and healthy food. Yet we still aren’t seeing many of those genuine conversations being fostered.

In this special joint article from Nourish Food Marketing and Kahntact, we’re looking at the communication breakdown between consumers and producers from both sides of the story. Enjoy the conversation, whichever side of it you're on — it could be the first step in bridging the field-to-fork and source-to-shelf gap.

Consumers today are disconnected from how their food is grown. And conversations will become even more critical in the future with climate change and increasing food tech adoption with genomic solutions employed for a more sustainable food system.

For farmers, the idea of freely sharing information with consumers about where their food comes from and how it’s grown or produced is a fairly new phenomenon. For decades, farmers believed they had a pretty straightforward deal with consumers; they supplied an abundance of fresh, nutritious, safe and relatively inexpensive food, and consumers didn’t ask too many questions. With the advent of social media and a growing consumer focus on the health benefits of food, as well as how and where their food is produced, farmers, farm groups, and even governments are being asked to be more transparent in all areas of food production. And with COVID shining a brighter light on the food supply chain, this trend is accelerating.

Radical transparency was a consumer trend spotlighted in our 2018 Nourish Trend Report. But, at the time, the other side of the fence (that’s you, ag producers) wasn’t ready for it. We envisioned smart labels allowing consumers to trace the entire journey of a product, with blockchain that would provide transparency on international food chains. That trend continues to grow as consumers increasingly want to know how the items in their grocery cart or restaurant meal were made or grown. Expect more talk about inputs and how we raise and slaughter our livestock.

Unfortunately, you can’t just ask consumers to look at the science; we are emotional rather than rational beings. In sales, there’s an old saying: “Facts tell, but stories sell.” And in these social media-driven, truth-challenged times, shared values outweigh facts and trust trumps truth.

The industry, as we know, likes to stay in its silos (no pun intended), which could hamstring necessary technologies like CRISPR or cellular agriculture. Imagine where GMO adoption would be if the first-use case had been better chosen and communicated with a focus on the consumer end benefit rather than just corporate agriculture.

It’s true that, historically, the agricultural industry has done a horrible job communicating the benefits of emerging technologies. The poster child for poor communication was bovine somatotropin or BST. BST is a naturally occurring hormone found in lactating dairy cows. Dairy scientists discovered that by enhancing BST levels in cattle, they produced more milk more efficiently. And the use of biotechnology allowed the pharmaceutical industry to create a safe, cost-effective synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone. BST was phenomenally safe, in fact; there was no trace of synthetic BST in milk produced by treated animals, down to parts per trillion. And the benefits were obvious — farmers could produce more milk with fewer cows, offering both consumer and environmental benefits. It should have been a major win.

At the end of the day, though, all consumers heard was ‘hormones in my child’s milk’ — and the product has not been registered in Canada to this day, despite one of the cleanest regulatory packages ever submitted to Health Canada. The product was great; the messaging around it was lousy.

Even the name Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) was an instant turn-off for consumers. While technically correct, it focused squarely on the scientific methodology rather than any kind of end benefit. And the activists went to town, labelling products produced with GMO technology as “Frankenfood” and worse.

A better use case worth highlighting is Arctic Apples, where the apples’ genes “turn off” the enzyme that makes apples turn brown when they’re cut. Here, the producer ties to consumer benefits of better taste, snack portability, and reduced food waste.

In their defense, back in the day, the ag-tech industry seemed to be on the right track in terms of tying technology to consumer benefits. The Flavr Savr tomato was the first commercially available genetically modified crop licensed for human consumption. The tomato offered a direct consumer benefit — it retained its flavour longer on the shelf than traditionally grown tomatoes. It could be harvested closer to peak ripeness and, because it stayed fresh longer, was ideal for long-distance shipping. Sadly, the industry seemed to lose its way after that, focusing on science and safety over end-user benefits.

The GMO first-use case got mixed up with monoculture and seed ownership discussions instead of helping farmers and food companies feed the almost 9 billion people on our planet with no ill effect.

A pesticide-dependent GM crop would be a significant communications risk, of course. Monsanto had sound commercial reasons but should have presented it through a consumer emotion lens, like “we’re helping farmers in poor countries grow drought-tolerant crops to save lives.” The result of years of misguided communications? Ninety per cent of scientists believe GMOs are safe. Ninety per cent of consumers do not.

In the future, will consumers understand the difference between gene editing (CRISPR) and gene modification (GMO)? CRISPR accomplishes what conventional breeding would do more efficiently and quickly. If you’re inside the industry, you get why this is a good thing. Now, we need to share that good-news story with consumers in a way that resonates rather than repulses.

Another key question: have farmers and the farm community learned lessons from the past? That means both in terms of their willingness to address sometimes complex food production issues with consumers and in communicating the benefits of technology rather than focusing on the scientific miracles performed to get there.

Food technology will become increasingly important as a way to solve climate change challenges. However, effectively communicating complex science and the need for it to the public will continue to take a lot of work. Increased transparency and storytelling using consumer language and concerns will better bridge the gap and find that critical common ground.

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