The truth about American farmers feeding the world may not resonate as well with consumers as farmers might like. This is why there is movement among some larger agricultural companies to personalize agriculture’s story.
Pest control advisors at the 42nd annual meeting of the California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA) held in Anaheim, Calif. were encouraged to help make that story more personal as they advise growers and have occasion to talk with the public about what they do.
The annual gathering of crop consultants and plant protection product representatives was a record-breaker, according to CAPCA representatives. About 1,600 people were on hand to hear presentations of a general and technical nature at the annual gathering.
Aside from various technical challenges, PCAs are called to address with their grower clients include: controlling populations of plant-eating insects, containment of various disease issues, and addressing the competition for water and nutrients that 30,000 different weed species presents. Crop consultants were urged by high-ranking representatives with Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience to help skeptical consumers understand the value of the practices they employ to address such challenges.
Rajan Gajaria, global leader for Dow AgroSciences in Latin and North America, encouraged the PCA audience to develop a personal story to help consumers better understand the value of the science and technology necessary to produce higher crop yields. He says the necessity to produce more food is widely accepted as the world population is projected to grow to 10 billion by 2050.
Facts alone won’t be able to reach the hearts and minds of consumers, he said. The battle instead is within the perceptions people hold as true.
“As an industry, agriculture already speaks much about ‘feeding the world',” Gajaria says. “You cannot win an emotional battle at the rational level. I believe that science wins, and that we have grown up with that mindset,” he continued.
That’s why Gajaria suggests conversations with consumers cannot always address facts and figures, but must delve into the personal and emotional.
“Technology is not always the answer in these conversations,” he said.
It is a conversation that Gajaria says Dow is working to start. To do this, American agriculture must first identify credible, unbiased sources of information – again, not to bombard people with scientific knowledge, though that is important.
“We need to figure out a way to talk with people at a level they can understand,” he said.
American farmers are at least part way there because of the pride and passion they have for what they do. The next step, he says, is to develop the power to take that message to the masses. He cautions that one must be careful with whom they share this message.
For instance, Gajaria has declined several invitations to appear on the Dr. Oz television program because “you cannot go in there and have a good, honest conversation.”
Still, there is something to learn from the Dr. Oz messages, and that has to do with the fear voices like Oz spread.
That is yet another reason Gajaria recommends agriculture’s message being shared in the urban centers of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco rather than cities that might adjoin agricultural regions.
As part of the conversation, he recommends asking questions about consumer fears – not to find something to be verbally combative about, but to better understand where the fears of technology are so that they can be honestly addressed.
David Hollinrake, vice president of marketing for Bayer CropScience, shared a similar message. He says these fears may have germinated from misunderstandings of agriculture and the technology it employs. At the crux of the technology debate is the projection that farmers worldwide will need to increase productivity by 70 percent in order to keep up with population growth.
“How are we going to get there?” Hollinrake asks. “No doubt technology is going to be required.”
Getting there does not mean discounting or denigrating the idea of locally-grown, organic food, he says. Neither does it mean suggesting that world populations should rely solely on the practice.
“If folks want to purchase and eat locally-grown organic, we should accept that,” he said. “That’s their freedom of choice. But, we should then ask that they understand we cannot feed a growing, hungry population with organics alone.”
According to Hollinrake, the desire to purchase locally-grown organic is not merely a coastal issue relegated to urban populations on the East and West coasts of the United States. There is a widespread perception that organic produce is healthier and safer, one which agriculture must work to address.
Bayer recently conducted some public opinion research, asking people what they thought of the various kinds of technologies now available to produce food. He says public opinion can be generally grouped into thirds:
- Those who understand technology and believe it is safe;
- Those who might be on the fence about technology and could be convinced with further conversations; and,
- Those who demonize conventional farming practices at every turn.
“I’m not sure that we’re going to influence the folks that have an opinion that is really far away from reality,” he says. “I think we have an obligation to take that center group and engage them in a dialogue and perhaps influence folks.
“This tells of the challenge we have,” he continued.
Doing this means not becoming defensive when consumers repeat misinformation common among activists.
“Oftentimes ag’s voice isn’t very loud, and when it does raise its voice, agriculture tends to take a defensive posture,” Hollinrake says.
Instead, he suggests trying to understand the opposition to the kinds of technologies agriculture uses and why there are concerns about it.
“Then perhaps we can bridge the discussion into the facts that we know so well,” he continued.
Dow and Bayer now have programs aimed at helping with this conversation.
For Dow, it’s a website at client.dow.com/CAPCA to “grow the conversation” and help consumers learn more about the industry that improves lives and feeds the planet. The conversation Gajaria talks about has nothing to do with telling people “I’m right and you are wrong.”
“We have to understand where they come from,” Gajaria continues. “There are tools on this website that might help with these conversations.”
For Bayer, this can be seen in a program called AgVocate.
“AgVocate was developed after surveying over 1,000 consumers as a means to help farmers amplify their voice above the noise created by agriculture’s antagonists and the well-funded activists who spread misinformation and lies."
AgVocate is a publication developed by Bayer to give those in agriculture the tools and information necessary to articulate technological advancements and the safety profile of the various crop protection products used today.
“Most farmers are fearful of the social conversation,” Hollinrake says. “We have got to enable farmers to have an active voice in overcoming the fear that exists.”
He says farmers are already poised for success as surveys suggest they are more trusted by the general public than academia, non-governmental organizations and the various for-profit industries that are tied to agriculture.
“We’ve got a wonderful story to tell, but it’s not being told,” Hollinrake says.