This engaging panel discussed different definitions for “sustainability” in society today and how consumers and producers can speak the same language. The 2019 AFBF Convention in New Orleans hosted this featured panel, but this conversation is very timely as we kick off National Agriculture Week. 

Public opinion of our industry evolves daily.  Technology allows anyone to control the messages and flow of communication about our industry. How can you step up and step out to create a direct line of communication with consumers? 

Erin Fitzgerald, CEO, U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance:  Defines sustainability as, ‘stewardship, values and commitment to manage so you can pass your land and business along to the next generation.’

How can we help farmers and ranchers increase sustainability? 

Consumers are asking what we’re doing on our farms so we have to do more to understand how to communicate the positive ways we farm to consumers. Farmers  and food manufacturers can work together to denote a common language.

Engagement is a two way street and we must respect the consumers in our conversations.
Jerry Lynch, Chief Sustainability Officer for General Mills defines sustainability as, ‘where farming communities, General Mills and the planet are all thriving at the same time.  Where there is a resilient supply chain.’
Consumers are much more informed and enabled today. They are way ahead of us in what they want and yet, what they want changes quickly.  
Since the advancement of social media there are so many outlets for news.  Because there are so many voices farmers, ranchers and food companies can't control their message to consumers.  The only thing we can do is be clear about what we want to do and be transparent in how we do it. 
How can we work together? 
Most consumers rely on their intuition when purchasing food. Unless they are the type of consumer who does a lot of research, they are probably buying food on autopilot.  The average consumer takes four seconds to decide on a food purchase. They ask themselves, “will my family eat it, and is it on sale?”  In those four seconds, intuition tells us that products that are or seem closer to nature equate to the healthier and tastier option.  
By far the most shared photos on Instagram are of food, gorgeous food. So expectations are high.
Jack Scott, Vice President of Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing for Nestle defines sustainability as, “preserving natural ecosystems and doing right by the communities in which they source.” 
Generation Z is larger than the millennials. They have a big voice, but we have a responsibility to teach them.  In doing so, we need to target the ways they want to be communicated to.
What do farmers need to do, and what pressures are food companies feeling?

Consumers have an expectation that the food they eat meets a fundamental value statement. That value statement is that food is healthy and so is the soil it is raised in.  The water we use is clean and we are treating our animals and wildlife well. We need to align this value statement with our actions. 

Don't confuse consumer preferences in segments such as organic, or natural or grass-fed with value statements.  Nestle will never say any segment is better than another.  At the same time, because of competition in the marketplace, they feel a lot of pressure to purchase from farmers and ranchers who meet those value statements. There are a lot of groups or companies who will latch on to one of those small segments and try to attach them to a value statement. They are very vocal and can cause a lot of damage to their company.  So Nestle has to respond.

There is a lot of misinformation about food in the blogosphere and social media, mostly not valid and quite harmful.  We know that a lot of this is created by people who have bad intentions.  Consumers know this as well.  So anyone who is not trustworthy in the mind of the consumer, i.e. big government and big corporations are looked at with suspicion. Meanwhile a food blogger who is perceived as, “just trying to feed their family healthy food”, will be listened to.  
The only people who want to know exactly where the food comes from are regulators and customs agents.  Consumers just want to know it's safe and nutritious.
How are you helping consumers understand how their food is produced?