Do consumers really want to know?

There’s a prevailing notion in agriculture that we must get consumer and public “approval” for modern farming practices and that we need to build “social licence” among consumers.

We have responded and invested significant resources and money into winning hearts and minds.

Lately, I have been increasingly wondering if this a strategically sound effort and a worthwhile investment. I’m not sure, for a couple reasons.

We really don’t know what impact these programs have had. It is notoriously difficult to accurately gauge the success or value of any campaign because measurement is always subjective. You can see how many people saw your ad, but you have no way of knowing if it changed their thoughts, much less behaviour.

But there are greater concerns beyond measurement.

One thing has consistently stood out to me: consumers say they want all sorts of nice-sounding things: organic, sustainably sourced, ethically produced, environmentally friendly, free-range.

Purchases tell a different story.

Lisa Covens is vice-president of Communications and Public Affairs at Toronto-based Leger 360, Canada’s largest market research and analytics company. She has overseen a fair amount of work in the food and beverage sector.

Consumers report a number of factors as important in their food choices, she says, but when advanced survey logic is used to tease out what is actually the most important, price always comes out on top.

“Behaviour is often different than intentions,” she says. “People want to think a variety of factors are important but in real life we are faced with choices.

“There’s always going to be a fairly large segment of society that has to be price conscious or just is because of their nature.”

There is also the question of how much urban consumers actually want to know about modern farming.

I visited a dairy barn a few years ago as part of a media tour. The equipment was new and high-tech, the setup was impressive, and the farmer spent a great deal of time talking about how his animals were treated with respect and care. But, as soon as we walked into the milking barn, the woman beside me plugged her nose and said “gross.”

Later I noticed she did not take any of the cookies and milk offered by the farmers.

I asked Covens for her thoughts on this.

“In theory, people will say they want to know where their food comes from. My assumption based on everything I know about how people think, answer surveys and react is that they will say they want to, but will they go one step further to actually learn? Probably not.”

Covens says there is already great deal of trust in Canadian-produced foods. After price, quality and whether the food is produced in Canada are often the most important factors for food-purchasing decisions.

Surveys have shown that people are even more inclined to buy from their own provinces, she says.

So, does this mean that our money would be better spent by just labelling our products as Canadian?

I’m not saying there is no value to programs that aim to tell the agriculture story to the public. There will likely always be a need to address the unscientific criticism our industry increasingly faces.

However, I think we need to ask more questions about the strategy, efficacy, measurements and value of these programs before we continue to invest in them.

Delaney Seiferling is a writer and communications consultant with a focus on western Canadian agriculture.

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