PEOPLE don’t respond to science - people respond to people.
That is a (very) short synopsis of the first of six papers in the Australian Farm Institute’s (AFI’s) latest Farm Policy Journal, which considers why consumers baulk at certain agricultural technologies.
The conclusion, that science alone is an inadequate tool for persuasion, is useful knowledge for any farm sector wanting to use a technology that might attract a consumer backlash.
As AFI’s executive director Mick Keogh, puts it in his introduction: “One of the most perplexing paradoxes of modern life is that consumers will willingly ingest potent mixes of chemicals or submit to analysis by some of the most advanced technological instruments in order to sustain their health, yet baulk at the use of the same technology in the production of the food they consume.”
Facts, as the global warming and GMO debates show, are not enough. Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) noted in his Farm Journal paper that “facts are only one element in the complex, multi-dimensional decision-making equation”.
This is especially true in a world connected by the internet. It was once thought that “the ‘net” would banish ignorance by connecting everyone to information.
Instead, people did what they have always done, and formed tribes, collecting together around “silos of interest”.
Internet tribes not only form a consensus around an issue; they shun those who don’t agree with the consensus.
“The challenge of communicating to those in tribes is that they limit perspective and insight to only those in the tribe,” Mr Arnot wrote.
Often, only those within the tribe are considered to have credibility, even though they may lack necessary expertise.
The internet also supports those who tend towards “confirmation bias”, the tendency for people to “favour information that confirms their existing beliefs and opinions regardless of whether the information is true.”
“For example,” Mr Arnot wrote, “an anti-GMO advocate isn’t likely to put much stock in information from the Genetic Literacy Project. A vegetarian will probably not follow the National Pork Board’s @PorkandHealth account on Twitter.”
Confirmation bias goes hand-in-hand with cultural cognition, the phenomenon on which politics is built. It describes how people endorse positions that reinforce their connection to others whose values they share.
These aspects of human nature are further reinforced by our glass-half-full tendency to give more weight to negative information than positive.
“In fact, it has been shown that a single item of negative information is capable of neutralising five similar pieces of positive information,” Mr Arnot wrote.
“All it takes is for one person – a friend, a colleague, a reporter, a blogger – in an individual’s sphere of influence to make a single ‘bad news’ claim and trust begins to erode.”
Thus, it seems that seeking to persuade consumers of value by science alone is likely doomed to failure.
“The goal should not be to win a scientific or social argument, but to find more meaningful and relevant methods to introduce science in a way that encourages thoughtful consideration and informed decision-making.”
As another paper in the AFI Farm Journal notes, understanding this challenge will be important for Australia’s ambitions in Asia.
The authors, from the Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development, point out that while many farmers want access to GM technologies, the wealthy Asian consumers they may want to target do not consider GM to be part of the “clean, green” equation that currently gives Australian produce its value.
“The changes to Asian food consumption patterns have presented Australian food industries with a challenge – how to increase productivity while maintaining Australia’s ‘natural’ reputation,” the five authors wrote.
“Do we focus on brand Australia – clean, green and safe for wealthier Asians who will pay higher prices for Australian non-GM produce, or do we develop GM crops and food products for poorer consumers?”
“Australia is confronting a difficult reality. While GM crops can provide farm productivity gains, GM produce has a lower retail value.
“Further GM crops and food could seriously ‘taint’ the brand position of non-GM Australian produce in Asian markets.”
“We conclude that Australia’s clean, green and safe brand has a market value, and needs to be included along with consumer purchasing behaviour when valuing technological advancements and GM food crops on Australian farms.”
AFI’s Farm Policy Journal can be bought from the AFI website www.farminstitute.org.au/publications/journal/farm-policy-journal