March 4, 2014

Putting a new face on food


Consumer skepticism about food system demonstrates need for farmers to engage.

Some 95% of corn farms in America are family-owned. Still, more and more consumers believe the majority of their food is being produced by large corporate farms.

According to Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity, consumers have become increasingly interested in food. “Food is on the consumer radar— big time,” he said. “There is also an increased skepticism regarding food production.”

Arnot said that consumers are deeply conflicted about food. There is a low correlation between what consumers say concerns them and their actual buying behavior. “While many consumers support greater regulation that can lead to higher food costs, they will still buy the least-cost product. In fact, one out of four dollars spent in retail food is spent at Wal-Mart stores.”

While one might think that food safety would be at the top of the list of consumer concerns, affordability of healthy food actually holds the number one position. “Safety is an assumed given in the U.S. food supply,” Arnot said. “It’s the one fundamental, non-negotiable requirement of our food system in this country. But people most want access to healthy foods they can afford.”

The Center for Food Integrity recently conducted a nationwide survey to gauge consumer perceptions about the food system in the United States. The results indicate that consumers are less trusting of “corporate” food production and they are demanding a high degree of transparency from those who provide food for the marketplace. Arnot sees this as a challenge and an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to reach out to consumers.

“We’re not going to change what someone believes by providing them with data,” Arnot said. “Farmers and ranchers need to engage directly with consumers in honest conversations about food production. Agriculture has to embrace a much more radical idea of transparency.”

The Nebraska Corn Board supports a number of initiatives that connect food producers with food consumers, including CommonGround, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, Ag in the Classroom and several other consumer-focused programs.

Arnot said that putting a face on agriculture is critical to overcoming consumer concerns. “Shared values drive trust. When consumers see and sense that the farmers and ranchers growing their food feel the same way they do about important food production issues—that builds a connection and understanding that numbers and science simply cannot.”

This will be a long term process, Arnot said. “Agriculture is very results- oriented. When we see a problem, we want to have it fixed in the next production cycle. When it comes to consumer perceptions on food, it’s a generational challenge—and it will take years to establish a stronger connection between farmers and consumers.”

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