Building on trust

The food on in our supermarkets is safer and fresher than ever before, but farmers and food companies face a significant new-age contamination scare – consumer mistrust.
Business frictions between farmers, food processors and retailers must be sidelined and united a approach adopted to confront what is shaping up as a big, costly challenge for the sector says the father of a new food integrity push in the US, Charlie Arnot.

“Consumers actually say they still have great trust in farmers, but they’re not sure that what farmers do is really considered farming any more,” said Mr Arnot, the chief executive officer of the Centre for Food Integrity (CFI).

“In agriculture we don’t really talk about our values. We’re trained to talk about the economics and science of farming.

“It’s a science-based culture that assumes everybody else will understand things the way we do if we just present them with a whole lot of facts.”

Mr Arnot, said size, scale, and technical advances in agriculture and retailing had made it harder for shoppers to relate back to the “traditional storybook perception” of a farm.

Today’s farms were much bigger than even a generation ago in order to feed a fast expanding global population and stay viable in the global marketplace.

Farming procedures and tools of the trade were also far more technically advanced.

Farmers themselves were different, too – better skilled and invariably tertiary educated with economics, science or rural engineering qualifications.

Geographic and generational change had also separated food producers from the main population area which meant complicated transport procedures were needed to distribute farm goods great distances – even around the globe – within 24 hours.

Modern agricultural topics like fertiliser inputs, costs, chemical application rates, livestock growth rates and even food safety standards also made farming sound less appealing to average consumers.

“We must help people understand that today’s farmers are much more alert to food safety issues, the environment and animal well being than their parents or grandparents,” said Mr Arnot, who has just spent two weeks addressing producer groups and agribusinesses in Australia.

“Their technical skills and new technology are producing safer food with a smaller environmental footprint that’s more water efficient and in tune with animal welfare needs.”

Unfortunately, however, modern consumers had limited real exposure to producers and therefore gave very little thought to how food was grown or prepared because it was generally “not very newsy” – unless something blew up as a potential food safety issue or alarming environmental talking point.

Mr Arnot said too often those negative news grabs left a lingering and suspicious message that snowballed to erode trust.

“We have to overcome that bias against science, technology and scale and show consumers just how much farmers really are the trustworthy, genuine people you imagine they should be,” he said.

In fact, research by the Missouri-based CFI proved that even after being shown the size and scale of modern farming in its full reality, consumers who could hear and see modern farmers talking about their farming activities liked what they saw.

In the space of just 90 seconds about 95 per cent of people who watched a CFI “Farmers feed us” presentation found the farmers interviewed to be “knowledgeable, approachable and the kind of people you want producing our food”.

The video included producers running large poultry operations with thousands of hens in barns and large scale cattle enterprises.

“The nice thing about adopting a values-based model is that it is very simple,” Mr Arnot said.

“The supermarket shopper doesn’t want a scientist or a polished speaker, they just want somebody talking passionately about their farm and the ethics and values of their business.

“They want a farmer to explain about how he or she is committed to their farmland for their own future and their children’s future on the land – then once you’ve established that trust you can back up with supporting data.

He said rebuilding consumer perceptions of modern farmers would take time. It could not be done by staying silent or hoping credible facts would speak for themselves.

“To build public support for agriculture we have to build consumer trust, engage with all stakeholders in the food business, share accurate and balanced information and highlight best practice.”

“We must stop playing not to lose and start playing to win.”

The Land