Farmers Need to Share Values with Consumers

In the battle for consumer confidence, emotion works better than science

You know all those heart-wrenching commercials where the Humane Society of the United States uses celebrities and sad-looking shelter dogs to hit emotional home runs with consumers?  The ones many farmers might scoff at, but the vast majority of city dwellers respond to by pulling out their hankies, along with their checkbook?

They're working.  And HSUS now has an 83% public approval rating.

Funny thing is, the same approach could work for livestock agriculture, too. And although there are new ag-based coalitions working on new consumer campaigns, none have yet to resonate with the public.

The Center for Food Integrity's latest consumer survey confirms why HSUS uses emotion to fill its considerable coffers. Key findings for CFI's annual consumer survey were unveiled this week at the group's annual Food Summit held in Chicago.

According to a survey of 2,000 consumers, shared values – messages that bond farm families with those of their customers - are three to five times more important than messages about science and competency when it comes to consumer trust in food and agriculture.

Charlie Arnot, CEO at CFI, believes that is a significant point for farmers as they look for ways to connect with customers.

"If I had a dollar for every time someone in Ag says something needs to be science based, I could retire by now," he says. "Historically, we have used science to defend farm practices. But when consumers ask questions about what we are doing, we need to have a good, value based answer."

Missing the mark The simple truth is, agriculture is not answering the questions consumers are asking, says Arnot.

New data shows consumers are much more interested in food ethics, he adds. "Should you house animals the way you do, should they be processed the way they are?" asks Arnot. "Can and should are not the same."

The research reveals a three-pronged approach is needed to bolster consumer confidence in food. After trust and shared values, consumers want measurable, repeatable data (science). Lastly, they want something that is economically viable.

CFI focused on a broad segment of consumers, but highlighted the early adopters, primarily because they are the main drivers of social change. Here's a snapshot of those consumers' attitudes:

-Nutrition, health and food safety are the greatest concern;

-They're deeply skeptical and distrustful of claims regarding improvements in technology and innovation in food production. They don't necessarily believe claims that something new is beneficial to their health and welfare or to the environment or farm animals;

-They have difficulty accepting the idea that food production must increase in efficiency to feed a growing population, because they feel this will further industrialize agriculture and probably make food less healthy. Consumers don't see the need to double global food production in the next forty years (based on expected population growth) when they see an obesity problem here at home;

 -Many early adopters felt it would be more socially responsible and healthier for consumers to eat more organic, more local and more in-season food;

-Cheap food is generally considered unhealthy; many early adopters believe they must choose between feeding their family lower quality, processed food that was within their budget, or more expensive, fresh foods.

"It's an uphill climb for those involved in the food industry, as you can see from these results," says Arnot.

HSUS responds On Tuesday we posted a story on CFI's survey showing farmers face an uphill battle by using science instead of emotion to defend livestock housing practices. The story was picked up and sent to HSUS's Paul Shapiro, who – perhaps inadvertently – sent me an email reply (I've never met the guy).

Shapiro is senior director of the HSUS 'Factory Farming' Campaign, and is probably considered public enemy number one for most U.S. farmers. I saw an opportunity to get a response from the horse's mouth, so to speak. I asked him to respond to the story coming out of CFI's latest survey.

“On many animal welfare issues, it’s not that there’s a difference between what our emotions tell us and what the science shows," says Shapiro. "Many viewpoints that the public considers just plain common sense are aligned with what the science shows. For example, the animal welfare science (see www.farmanimalwelfare.org. ) contains overwhelming evidence that forcing animals to remain virtually immobile in tiny cages for months at a time is very detrimental to their welfare.

"On issues like this—for example, gestation crates—the science affirms the public’s natural inclination to be opposed to such extreme confinement.”

Whether you believe Shapiro's claims or not, people are responding.

Meanwhile Mark Lambert, senior communications manager at the National Corn Growers Association, reported on a speech given to the St. Louis Ag Club by David Martosko, director of research at Center for Consumer Freedom.

Some might say Martosko is public enemy number one for HSUS supporters. Martosko has spent a lot of time and effort showcasing some of the questionable business practices of HSUS. He points out that 59% of the public believes HSUS donations go to help animal shelters, when in fact, the organization spends less than 1% of their budget to help distressed animals. Learn more  at www.humanewatch.org

Martosko says HSUS doesn't expect to convert every one to vegetarianism. Rather, it hopes to make meat so expensive it will eventually drive livestock agriculture into the ground.

Read Mark's excellent story here: http://corncommentary.com/2010/09/13/hsus-war-chest-considerable-so-is-their-pension-plan/

Farmers who don't want to see their livelihoods destroyed would be smart to get involved in consumer campaigns and engage their customers.

 

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