Why Are Successful Farmers Not Winning America’s Trust?
Advocacy Despite great strides in efficiency and sustainability, faith in the American farmer has declined. How was that trust lost, and how can we rebuild it?
There’s a lot to celebrate in American agriculture. Farmers have done an amazing job of maintaining an abundant and affordable food supply despite rapid population growth here and around the world. Smarter systems have been developed, making it possible for more of us to eat well. We’ve produced more with the same amount (or less) of land, water and other resources.
The success story
Take a moment to absorb these accomplishments. Between 1950 and 2010, agricultural productivity in the U.S. more than doubled while the amount of land used for farming decreased by 25 percent. In 1950, one acre of land grew enough wheat to bake about 670 loaves of bread compared to 1,800 loaves today. Corn growers in 2011 used 40 percent less land, 50 percent less water, 40 percent less energy, saw 60 percent less soil erosion, and had a 35 percent decrease in greenhouse gases compared to 1980.
Consumers go to the grocery store every day and find a wide array of delicious, safe, affordable food. The vast majority of it begins with farmers using technology that allows them to grow more with less.
Genetically modified crops allow farmers to control weeds and pests with reduced amounts of chemicals and fewer passes through fields with diesel-powered equipment. Precision farming boosts crop yields and reduces waste by using satellite maps and computers to match seed, fertilizer and crop protection applications to local soil conditions. Indoor housing systems protect animals from predators and weather extremes while allowing farmers to provide specialized diets and individual care. But despite the many positive strides, some consumers have become skeptical of farming.
“Farmers can no longer assume the public knows they care about the food they produce or the animals they raise.”
The trust gap
Consumers today are no longer sure that farmers put public interest ahead of profitability. That’s frustrating for farmers who have traditionally enjoyed a high degree of public trust and believe their vocation has a noble purpose.
Maintaining consumer trust is critical for everybody involved in food production. The reality that we have more food choices, that our food is safer than ever before and that it is remarkably affordable, can be overshadowed by a lack of trust.
What do consumers need from producers and food companies to build trust? The answer, in part, is transparency. Research has shown that as food producers increase transparency, they also increase trust. This link is is real, direct and powerful.
Consumers expect transparency across the board — in areas including sustainability efforts, the impact of food on health and the environment, food safety and animal care. Farmers can no longer assume the public knows they care about the food they produce or the animals they raise. Recalls, foodborne illness outbreaks, undercover video investigations at livestock farms and other incidents have eroded trust.
Rebuilding consumer faith requires pulling back the curtain, engaging with the public and being open about today’s farming practices. Very few consumers today have any direct link to a farm or agriculture, so introductions are in order. Transparency helps to establish the links that lead to public trust.
I applaud farmers who have embraced this reality. Some have active websites and blogs that invite the public to ask questions. Others are producing and posting videos about their operations and animal care. Still others are inviting interested groups to tour their farms for a firsthand look at the many aspects of environmental stewardship and animal care. I encourage others to follow their lead. The journey may not be simple but the reward is consumer trust. And that’s something worth celebrating.