Ag Policy Blog

Public Transparency is Increasingly Critical for Food and Agriculture

By Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor

Farmers and others in the food supply chain are going to have to increasingly wrap their heads around the idea of more transparency throughout the food system in the coming years.

Charlie Arnot, CEO for the Center for Food Integrity, spoke last week at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting about the latest research on consumer expectations for U.S. food chain.

Arnot pointed out that Americans are more skeptical of the food system than ever before even though we know food is safer, more available and more affordable.

That American skepticism has been a growing phenomenon throughout public institutions since the late 1960s. Public confidence in institutions began to erode with the images coming home from the Vietnam War, as well as the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and riots during the Democratic National Convention that year. Scandals in the 1970s such as Watergate and events since then have continued to erode confidence in both government and business.

"Those violations of public trust over the last 45 years have been significant enough that as a culture we are skeptical about whether or not institutions are worthy of public trust," Arnot said.

Food is now seen as one of those institutions to be skeptical over. That's likely due, at least partially, to more public visibility when it comes to food outbreaks as well as the increasing generational disconnect from the farm. That gap can be closed through some increased transparency.

"Consistently what we hear from consumers is they trust farmers, but they aren't sure they trust farming," Arnot said. "Consumers like farmers. They are not sure they trust what you do but they want to trust you."

Arnot highlights that violating a social license to operate can have a serious financial impact on a food company when regulations force dramatic changes because the company was unwilling to protect the food supply or the environment.

"If the public trust is violated, it always results in increased operating costs," he said.

Additionally, in today's world where anyone with a cellphone can record, people have to assume that someone is watching them all the time. Food companies and farm operations not only need written policies, but they need to ensure their practices follow those policies. Consumers want information on farm practices. They also want the ability to engage and be heard. Both companies and farmers need to share more about what they are doing. Wrapping up, Arnot added that the more transparent a company is the more willing the public is to trust that company and believe its interests are aligned with their interests. "I would encourage you to embrace transparency," he said.

Third-party verification is critical in two areas: food safety and animal well-being.

Maintaining the public trust is critical to avoiding calls for legislation or regulation surrounding agriculture. Just as importantly, public trust is necessary to avoid having consumers or groups putting pressure on companies to change practices in their supply chains.

"Today, just as frequently as we see regulation or legislation, we see companies across the supply chain making decisions that have an impact all the way back to the farm," Arnot said. "They say, 'I no longer want that ingredient. I no longer want that process or I no longer want that animal practice as part of my supply chain so make it go away.'"

Research and data is no longer the cornerstone for building trust. People want to know a company or person has shared values more than they want to pay attention to technical competency. That goes against the grain of starting with the science

"Unless you can communicate those shared values, none of the scientific information you have to share will make any difference at all," Arnot said.

This does not imply abandoning science. The measurable data still is important, but as Arnot added, "People no longer care about how much you know until they know how much you care."

When a critic of farming practices of biotechnology raises doubts, the response should be one of empathy, Arnot explained. Rather than just offer data, embrace that person's skepticism and offer to be supportive. An example, "Boy, Lisa, I really appreciate your concern and I really want to tell you how much I appreciate you wanting to do your best job as a mom. There is probably no more important job on the planet than being a good mom, and I understand it can be difficult today to get the information you need to make the right decisions for you and your family. There is a lot of conflicting information about food today. How can we be a resource for you?"

Consumers are crowdsourcing knowledge, looking at various on-line sources and often from friends. Such internet connections are often "tribal" in that people search and find information that conforms with their existing world view.

"That happens not only with those who are concerned about agriculture, but that happens within agriculture as well," Arnot said.

Regarding where people see responsibilities in the food chain, Arnot said some 2015 focus groups and consumer answers showed most consumers put the onus of responsibilities on food companies. However, when it comes to the environment, consumers are as likely to rank farmers as responsible for the environment as food companies.

Consumers primarily hold food companies responsible for transparency. They also hold companies more responsible for treatment of animals on the farm. That will translate into companies continuing to set tighter requirements down the supply chain, and then publicly announcing such changes in farm practices as well.

Arnot added, "Transparency is the key to overcoming 'Big Ag' bias. That was something we heard consistently. If companies are transparent, that bias begins to go away."

As Arnot was explaining that mindset, Campbell's Soup was seizing on the idea by announcing their plans to add GMO labels to their soup. http://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/…

Arnot was asked about "ag-gag" legislation, which has become increasingly popular by farm groups to champion in recent years even though such bills are often thrown out by courts. Arnot said he understands the argument, but the ag-gag legislation itself translates into inferences.

"The message they send to the public is you have something to hide," Arnot said.

He prefers laws that would require people to report animal abuse to authorities within 24 hours after the instance rather than allowing these months-long situations where animal-rights groups record abuse without taking action.

More details on the Center for Food Integrity research can be found on the group's website: http://www.foodintegrity.org/…

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.

Comments

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Curt Zingula 1/20/2016 | 7:42 AM CST
Sadly, the food companies pray on consumers with deceptive labeling such as 'No HFCS'. While it would be good to reveal how the food companies use deception to laugh all the way to the bank, that exposure will also increase the public's distrust with food products. BTW, what does a Center For Food Integrity Do? Is this some Ralph Nader thing?