WELCOME to the first Get Muddy Q&A where once a month, I’ll be asking some well-known people to pull up a chair and have yarn about Australian agriculture.
For our debut, I’ve invited a man who understands the nuts and bolts of the relationship between consumers, food and agriculture, to answer a few questions.
Charlie Arnot is an American who has spent much time talking about agriculture in Australia over the years.
Based in Missouri, he’s the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a national non-profit organisation dedicated to building consumer trust and confidence in the US food system.
Q: Charlie, what’s the biggest threat to consumer trust and confidence in Australian agriculture?
A: Arrogance, a lack of transparency and an assumption that people will let us do what we want to do because they need to eat. In other words, to quote the comic strip Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us!” Consumers’ heightened interest in food and agriculture can be viewed as an opportunity or a threat. If we view it as a threat, become defensive and refuse to share information, we will only increase public perception that we have something to hide. But if we welcome questions and scepticism, increase the level of transparency and align our practices with broad social expectation, we can help build broad based consumer trust.
Q: In developed countries, where the quantity and choice of food is abundant and often taken for granted, do you think consumers care enough to listen, so as to then shift their buying behaviour or attitude on agriculture?
A: Good conversation starts with listening, but the listening needs to begin with us. We have a burning desire to tell consumers what we think they need to know.
First listen, then understand, then respond with relevant detail and engage in a way that helps build trust. There is a low correlation between attitudes on specific practices in agriculture and purchasing behaviour. For example, consumers may vote to oppose tail docking of dairy cattle, or having laying hens in cages, but then go to supermarket and buy the cheapest product. They don’t see a connection between demanding socially responsible production and the cost. In fact, they assume that we’ll produce in a responsible manner simply to assure access to markets.
Q: How does the conversation Australian agricultural industries have with consumers compare to the US conversation?
A: The conversations in many ways are quite similar. Consumers really like farmers, but they aren’t sure they like today’s farming. They want to know more about their food, where it comes from and the men and women who make it happen. Agriculture is moving from a defensive posture to one of engagement. We need to engage and increase our transparency to build trust in who we are and what we do.
Q: What areas of communication do we need to focus on and what’s your advice to readers on how they contribute?
A: Assuming that they (the consumer) will come to us to “learn the facts” is a dangerous assumption and a failed strategy. We tend to look for information that confirms our bias or is consistent with our world view so the great equaliser across geography and demographics is social media. We need to meet consumers where they are, and not expect them to come to us. A good place is food blogs with mommy bloggers and others having this discussion online.
Q: When speaking at Australian events, what’s the most common question you’re asked and what is your answer?
A: The most common is: How can we go about building trust in food and agriculture like CFI has in the US? Answer: Data is boring. Passionate people are energising and motivating! Find people committed to the mission and channel your passion to make it happen. Start with a small group who share your vision and values to make that personal connection with everyone you meet, whether face to face or online.
Q: What can US agriculture learn from Australian agriculture and vice versa?
A: We have much to learn from each other and the challenges are very similar, even if our specific issues may differ. For example mulesing is not an issue in the US and farm size is less of an issue in Australia. We can all learn from those who have good programs that connect with the public and help build trust. Agriculture needs to embrace consumer values and expectations. Then we share our story that shows consumers we understand, appreciate and respect what is important to them.
Q: Recently you conducted “Consumer Trust Research: Defining Social Outrage and Trust-Building Transparency” with CFI, what were the main issues and outcomes of the research?
A: We know that being more transparent can help overcome the current bias and scepticism about size, use of technology and other issues of concern to consumers. We wanted to define and measure what constitutes transparency. The results are captured here.
You can follow Charlie Arnot on Twitter: @Charlie_Arnot and visit the CFI website http://www.foodintegrity.org/