Feeding the Paranoia

When I visited New Zealand last fall, an individual who worked for the government admitted that New Zealand farmers make money by “feeding the paranoia.” They take advantage of the fear and inexperience of consumers all over the world by marketing products as clean and green to generate consumer interest. Unsurprisingly, it works.

There is no denying the reality of food paranoia. It’s why there are ads for antibiotic-tested milk and hormone-free chicken labels. Mixed in with a fear of our food is a lack of understanding of how it’s produced and a genuine concern for the safety of animals on the farm and food on the table.

What do consumers need to know?

With the average American at least three generations removed from the farm, common knowledge about caring for plants and animals is no longer common knowledge. Most people don’t know that all milk is tested for antibiotics at the farm and processing plant, or that chickens are never given synthetic hormones. This information gap is often filled by anti-agriculture sentiments that may not be the whole truth.

According to a recent study by the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, consumers are hungry to know more about how their food is raised. Fifty-nine percent of respondents indicated that it is extremely important to them that restaurants and grocery stores share information about the way food is grown and raised. Over half indicated that they have less information than they want. However, out of all the consumers who said they wanted more information, 60% couldn’t specify what information they wanted.

It seems that consumers just want to know… more. The study asked consumers to choose between an apple that was labeled with a website that could be visited to find out more information about its origin, and one that wasn’t. Consumers were more likely to choose the apple with the website regardless of whether they actually visited the website or not.
Transparency is key – consumers want to know they have access to more information, even if they can’t articulate what information they want. Unfortunately, according to SHS FoodThink studies, only 34% of Americans feel the agriculture industry is transparent.

What can the agriculture industry do?

Consumers know they need more information; 76% of them admit to having a poor or average understanding of the way food is produced. Unfortunately, when no information is provided, 40% of consumers assume it’s because there’s something to hide.

We desperately need farmers, ranchers and agriculture industry representatives to share their stories with consumers over social media, a steak dinner, or even at the meat counter. Organic shoppers and millennials are the most concerned about food production and all rank social media and blogs as their top source of information about food, so that seems like a great way to reach them.

So how do we get our message across? To start, we have to connect. People like to hear information from experts who are like them. Shared values make the expert seem believable and trustworthy. We can connect with them over things like our children, our love for the outdoors, or even our family dog, if we don’t share specific values. A mutual respect developed from a connection like that can keep a conversation civil and productive. Assessing and responding to every individual differently, based on their thoughts and beliefs, can create an open and honest dialogue where talking points aren’t needed and science complements ideas already being shared.

Then, remember that most consumers are far removed from the farm. Lingo most farm kids grew up with is foreign to the average consumer. Most people aren’t going to know what grain elevators, variable rate technology, or disk rippers are. We have to adjust our terminology and explain what some of these terms are in order to get our point across.
Share any and all information you have about your farm or your agribusiness. Talk about what your pigs eat and how your cows’ teats are cleaned. Share pictures of harvest or videos of your kids in the show ring. Be open to answer questions and start conversations. It may feel silly to be writing about the very basics of farming, but pages like The Farmer’s Life, Dairy Carrie, and I Am Agriculture Proud do a great job of doing just that.

Don’t be afraid to tackle the big issues, too. The top four consumer concerns about food are pesticides, animal antibiotics, hormones and welfare. The conversations about these tough topics are already making a positive impact on consumer perceptions, but the ag industry could use a few more voices (like yours!)

New Zealand is a great country, but I’m not sure we should adopt their attitude of “feeding the paranoia.” Being transparent, honest and informative seems like a better alternative. Farmers, ranchers and ag industry workers, your voices are needed in the conversation about food, so speak up! Every voice tells the same story a little differently. Yours might be the one to resonate and change someone’s way of looking at things.


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