NE Ag Classic speaker: Farmers must address critics in new ways
By Jennifer M. Latzke
"The challenge you face today is that producing food doesn't feel as noble as it used to," said Charlie Arnot, the keynote speaker at the 2008 Nebraska Ag Classic, Dec. 15.
His message to growers was how to earn and maintain the social licenses needed to continue practical and efficient farming and ranching practices to feed and clothe the world.
Arnot, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity, explained how the worldview of agriculture, and of farmers and ranchers has changed in the past few decades, and how they can regain consumer trust. The Center for Food Integrity is a not-for-profit corporation that promotes a dialogue between consumers and producers, based in Kansas City, Mo.
"To have freedom to operate, you must have a social license that gives you the privilege of operating with minimum formal restriction, legislation, and regulation," Arnot said. "It's based on maintaining the public trust and doing what's right."
He explained there is a tipping point between flexible controls and lower production costs and rigid controls and higher production costs.
"The accounting profession used to have a broad social license to do what they needed to do," he said. "CPAs used to self-regulate to uphold the ethics and values of their stakeholders. Then, Enron came along and now there are social controls that cost between $10 and $15 million per year in place."
The goal for farmers and ranchers is to do what they can to maintain social licenses to minimize costs and maintain production flexibility, he said.
"It's a business decision, not just a feel good decision," Arnot said.
Three factors of trust
So, what drives trust in food? Arnot gave three factors: influence, competence and confidence.
"Influential others" are people, such as family and friends or credentialed individuals, he explained, who influence our decisions. Some examples of this can be a family member who advises one to buy organic, or a doctor who tells one to cut back on meat in one's diet.
Competence is the ability to prove with science and reasoning that one way of production is more efficient, safer, and overall wiser than others. Arnot explained that in the past agriculture has tended to focus the debate here, backing up their reasoning with science.
Confidence, Arnot said, is perhaps the most important factor of all.
"It's five times as important as competence," he said. "Do we share the same values? Can I count on you to make the right decisions?" Showing consumers that they can place their confidence in farmers and ranchers is where agriculture is lacking today.
"Something is broken, and we have the opportunity to fix it," he said. "We don't raise crops, beef or dairy like we used to. The restaurant business is fundamentally different. Retail groceries are fundamentally different.
"Consumers envision a pastoral 'farm,' with a barn and chickens and cows, but it's like comparing a new car to a 1957 Chevy," he added. New cars have seat belts, and airbags and computers and all the refinements, Arnot said. "But, the public is stuck in 1957," he continued. "They're in the grocery store thinking like a 1957 Chevy, and we zoom by in our 2008 Taurus."
Messages to consumers
Today's industrial model of production equates societal benefits with efficient, traceable, and safe production methods.
"As we embraced technology, we left the public in that 1957 Chevy," he said. "We know that modern farming methods mean that we can better protect the environment, and treat animals well, while still providing a safe and abundant food supply for consumers."
Consumers, though, can sense that something is different and it's up to producer to communicate the message.
"We may not change a thing on the farm, but how we talk about it will make a difference," Arnot said.
Whether that message is telling consumers that we provide for animals because they in turn provide the best return on our investment, or telling them that we have an ethical obligation to our employers, environment, animals and communities that drives us, communication is key.
Overall, remember that business and principles are not mutually exclusive, Arnot said. "Don't apologize for working for profits," he said. "If there is no profit in agriculture, then nobody eats. We can be centered around principles and still make a profit at the same time."
There are many organizations that attack agriculture, and the general public looks to them as both influential and confidence-worthy. The Humane Society of the United States, for example, has twice the membership of the National Rifle Association, he said.
"When Proposition 2 was approved in California, it was passed with a 63 percent majority," Arnot said. "Of the 12 measures on the ballot, it had the same support as a measure to make loans to military veterans. And, it had 10 percent more support than the gay marriage issue." The strategy on both sides was key.
The HSUS strategy was to frame the argument that a yes on Prop 2 was a modest measure, that stops the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, Arnot said. "The message from agriculture was that this proposition will drive prices for eggs up and put producers out of business because they can't compete with Mexican imports," he said. "We allowed 'them' to define the reasonable care of animals."
Defining the argument
"The public doesn't want science, they want humane and cheap food," Arnot added. And, if what drives consumer trust is half competence and half confidence, it's up to agriculture to step up and change the message.
"Consumers are looking for somebody in production agriculture willing to look them in the eye and say, 'I take my obligation seriously,'" Arnot said. "They want permission to believe that we're doing the right thing in agriculture."
In consumer studies, food safety ranked as a higher concern for consumers than the war in Iraq, Arnot said.
"They ranked farmers, producers, food companies and processors as most responsible for food safety," Arnot said.
And, while confidence in the safety of U.S. food supply is declining, consumers polled placed the highest level of trust and willingness to comply with advice on food safety with the farmers and ranchers, rather than in the regulatory agencies responsible, he said.
"More strongly disagreed that the food supply is safe year to year and they are losing confidence that today's food supply is as safe as their childhood," Arnot said. "They will listen if we can tell them a story about our production methods."
Another disturbing trend is that U.S. consumers polled said they felt U.S. food is more costly than anywhere else in the world. If agriculture interests are to communicate with consumers, they need to balance three items: profit, objectivity and ethics.
"We need to show that we are economically viable for sustainability," Arnot said. "We need to have our methods scientifically verified, and we must show that we're ethically grounded."
"Science alone isn't a moral reason, and if we use that in an argument we lose before we start," Arnot said. "When consumers give us ethical questions and we respond by talking profits, we lose. If we convince them that we're doing the right thing, they'll listen to our other two arguments.
"We have to give them permission to believe that contemporary production is consistent with their values and expectations," he said.