Consumers don’t start out disliking farmers.
But farmers can end up being seen as the bad guys when consumers are led to believe in a ro-manticized version of farming and then suddenly see the underlying commercial reality, an expert on consumer misperceptions of food told Keystone Agricultural Producers’ annual meeting.
“They feel deceived. They feel confused,” said Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University in Virginia.
“You become the villain.”
Levinovitz, who wrote The Gluten Lie to challenge commonly held consumer misperceptions about gluten, sugar, carbohydrates and fat, argues that consumers have become alarmed by many harmless aspects of food, such as gluten and genetically modified organisms, because they are worried about their health and are vulnerable to simple answers.
Compounding the problem is the romantic notion of farming, which comes not only from portrayals of primitive, pre-modern farming in books and movies but also from the hokey farm images peddled in food product packaging.
Levinovitz said images of idyllic red barns and tiny farms clash with realities of the large-scale production and hard-nosed business that actually produce affordable food.
Romanticized images about farming are nothing new, Levinovitz said. The Garden of Eden has represented a perfect time for centuries, and some associate that with farming.
But the reality, Levinovitz said, was that the hardscrabble life of farming was almost a curse placed on humanity after the sin of eating the apple from the tree of knowledge. Humans were driven out of the garden and forced to undertake backbreaking farming to survive. Having to farm was a punishment for having sinned.
Images of farming in the developing world are also often false portrayals of reality, Levinovitz said, with comfortable westerners assuming poor rural life is pure and wholesome. In fact, it is generally exhausting and sometimes a desperate struggle just to produce enough food to survive.
Levinovitz said romantic stories and misleading images that hurt farmers are best countered by farmers offering up their own stories. People learn and understand through narrative.
“You can tell different stories,” said Levinovitz.
“Change the stories people tell by inserting yourselves.”
Levinovitz said farmers can probably achieve more by simply showing what they do and what their farm is all about, through any modern medium, than by arguing against the false perceptions of farming.
“You can push back against the false narratives” by showing a different story, but one that consumers will also feel comfortable with.