The discussions ranged from a primary agricultural input, seed, all the way to consumer demand. A point I made with the audience was that any one sector of agriculture and food is complex. Accounting for activity across multiple sectors is really complex.
The contrarian theme of this series of discussions challenges participants to think differently. Contrarian thinking about complex systems implies working to do three things:
- You are asking different kinds of questions than you asked before
- You identify where your prior thinking, or that of those you work with, may be too simplistic
- You begin to recognize patterns and trends that will change the shape of the world – and potentially your business or farm
Roxi challenged the audience to think differently about consumers and their perceptions of agriculture as one example of a discussion thread. When agriculturalists see objections to GMOs, consumers reaching for products in the organic aisle, or buying alternative meat products, often their first inclination is to question whether the consumer understands the science of agriculture or even has an understanding of what they’re buying.
Roxi pointed out that consumers care. But they care about what they buy, which is food. When we try to communicate to most consumers about agriculture, we’re not connecting. Consumers don’t particularly care about agriculture. At least not directly.
But consumers do care about where their food comes from. A survey we did of 1,500 U.S. consumers about five years ago showed that 90 percent of consumers care all the time or most of the time about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Roxi shared a more recent number from her survey work of 65 percent.
Several summers ago I was traveling in Austin, Texas and I spent a couple hours at the original Whole Foods. I spoke to a number of people there about their food purchasing habits. While Austin is certainly not Ames (they seem serious about the Keep Austin Weird theme), their descriptions were consistent with what I observe in Iowa. People eat (mostly) for energy and health, and curiosity about the impact of food on these things is only going up. And the amount of information in front of consumers about food’s impact on energy, health and well-being is going up, not always accurate, but going up all the same.
Roxi’s message was that we in agriculture need to aim to connect with consumer’s hearts, not their heads. Messages about science, about production and about efficiency will not hit the mark. We need to connect with the stories and people of agriculture. Perhaps even an emotional element of appeal!
So related to question #1, what question was I asking at the end of the discussion with Roxi that I wasn’t asking before?
What can I do to create positive connection with food consumers?
Each of us can play a role in communicating positively about agriculture with consumers. Each of us can create a more constructive view of where agriculture is at today and will be tomorrow.