“Food Transparency.” What does that phrase even mean? To most of us in agriculture, the phrase is an oxymoron: we know how our food is made. To us, everything about our food system is transparent. Unfortunately, that’s not the perception of many of our friends, neighbors or family.
Over the last 45 years, we've seen a lot of integration of the food industry. Because of this integration the public sees us as an ‘institution.’ They say, “We trust farmers; we're just not sure we trust farming.” Combined with the advent of social media; farmers and ranchers have lost control over dialogues about food and food safety.
Taking back the food and farming conversation
But not to worry. Farmers and ranchers already have all the tools they need to take back this conversation. Charlie Arnot, CEO at The Center for Food Integrity, shared his model for gaining back the public trust during a workshop at the American Farm Bureau (AFBF) Annual Convention.
It all begins with preserving a ‘social license to operate.’ Arnot describes a social license as, “the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions (legislation, regulation, or market requirements).” A social license is based on maintaining public trust by doing what's right -- if you don't maintain your business through ethics, values, expectations and self-regulation the tipping point moves towards social control. Agriculture knows this all too well given the world of government over-reach and regulation we operate in.
The first step to taking back the conversation is rebuilding trust. According to a study of 6,000 people over three years, a perception of shared values is 3 to 5 times more effective in building trust than demonstrating facts or technical skills. Arnot says, “the public wants information from academics but not academic information.” This seems like counterintuitive for farmers and ranchers -- for far too long we’ve emphasized using strong, sound science as the basis for educating others about agriculture. Can we authentically communicate compassion, responsibility, respect, fairness, truth?
Farmers and ranchers are exceptional at answering the question “Can we?” even though the public is saying, “Yes, we know you can, but does that mean you should?”
Safety in numbers - YOU are the new news source
People are changing the ways they form opinions. Social media has opened the world to mass communication like never before—and people use it to ‘crowd source’ their information and decision making. We search for information based on the opinions of people we believe to be influential; friends, family, coworkers. From there, we form our opinion based on much of the information we glean from those we trust. It’s our new job to become a ‘trusted source’ among all of our non-ag family, friends, and networks.
That means educating the public simply isn’t enough anymore. We live in a radically transparent world and we have to be willing to engage and have conversations. If crowd sourcing information is the new Encyclopedia, then farmers and ranchers can quickly become one of those trusted sources.
- Who you are is as important as what you know
- Embrace skepticism - it's not personal, it's a social condition
- The public wants information from academics but not academic information
- Transparency is no longer optional
3 things you can start doing today
- Begin your public engagement using shared values. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
- Open the digital door to today’s agriculture. Find ways to make what you do transparent to illustrate your commitment to do “what’s right”.
- Commit to engaging early, often and consistently. Your voice, your knowledge and your credibility matter. You can make a different in building public support for agriculture, but you have to learn how to play by new rules.
Learn more about National Ag Day, with resource to tell our story, here: www.agday.org.