Farmers trump scientists in consumer trust surveys

You are at one of those grocery stores where they give out samples. A person in a white lab coat, whom you are told is a scientist, is handing out small bits of food in a paper cup. She tells you about the testing done on this particular product that proves it is safe.

A few aisles down, a person whom you are told is a farmer is handing out the identical product in an identical paper cup. He tells you how he planted, grew and harvested the food at his farm.

Which product sample do you choose?

Extrapolating from a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, most people would choose the sample handed out by the farmer.

Data shows 61 percent of non-farming consumers have a very or somewhat positive view of agriculture, up 20 percent from 2006, and 69 percent view farmers favourably as sources of information on food and farming.

Farmers are at the top of the latter list, ahead of doctors, friends and family, humane societies and scientific and academic researchers.

Gauging the level of public trust in agriculture was the primary reason for the survey, so the fact that information provided by farmers is viewed more favourably than information from scientists deserves a close look.

Think how often farming practices, when questioned, are defended on the basis of science.

Research shows genetically modified crops are safe. Research shows responsibly used pesticides are safe. Research shows hormone implants in cattle are safe.

In fact, scientific research proves all of those things, but it hasn’t calmed the fears of many consumers. They continue to question the science, or its validity, or its objectivity, or they have another reason for skepticism.

So when those in the agriculture industry explain or feel the need to defend various practices using science as a basis, they aren’t winning the trust of consumers.

Agriculture depends on science and relies upon it to increase productivity and sustainability. It is absolutely crucial to the industry’s existence and development.

Yet science doesn’t resonate with today’s largely urban consumers.

What does resonate? Honest information from farmers themselves.

The Center for Food Integrity has found that confidence in the source is three to five times more important in building trust than is the competence of the source.

That doesn’t mean farmers are incompetent; quite the contrary. Instead, it shows the importance of gaining consumer trust by connecting first with hearts and then with minds.

Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the U.S. Centre for Food Integrity, puts it this way: “If people trust you, science doesn’t matter. And if people don’t trust you, science doesn’t matter. Science only matters after you cross that trust threshold.”

Perhaps the best way for farmers to cross that threshold is to always acknowledge that they are consumers too and they do things for a reason.

Discuss.

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