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Facts alone are unconvincing when it comes to our food

Science offers farmers a great many things, but ethical justification isn’t one of them

It gets used to defend GMOs, livestock production and food additives.

But when speaking to consumers, experts say it is time to retire the phrase “science based” and focus on shared values instead.

Charlie Arnot

Charlie Arnot
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“You cannot abandon science, you absolutely have to have that to prove the claims you’re making, but at the end of the day, science alone is not persuasive in building support from consumers,” said Charlie Arnot. “We can’t substitute scientific verification for ethical justification.”

Speaking to producers at Crop Connect in Winnipeg, the chief executive director of the Missouri-based Center for Food Integrity said that historically farmers have talked about who they are and what they do for a living as they work to maintain a social licence to operate. That no longer works in today’s diverse media landscape, where new technologies can give anyone a voice and a platform, he said.

“You’ve been operating under the belief that the public will be logical, they’ll be rational and if you simply give them the right facts and data, they’ll come to our side of the argument and if they have not yet come to our side of the argument, we probably haven’t yet given them the right information, so we’ll go do some more research,” Arnot said. “And if they still haven’t come to our side of the argument, we’ll go do some more research. And we repeat that cycle over and over, and over again.”

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Taking a picture of a grocery item

Authentic

Instead, communication strategies need to focus on authentic and transparent communication, the kind of dialogue that builds on shared ethics, he said, adding that the centre spent five years researching the key drivers in building trust between the agricultural industry and consumers. The results of the five-year study showed that shared values were three to five times more important in building trust than demonstrating competence was.

“So we have had the historical communication equation exactly backwards, because we’ve always started with the facts,” Arnot said. “It would be great if just the facts would be persuasive, if that was all we had to provide to protect our social licence — that’s not how it works today. Facts alone are not sufficient.”

That means that instead of approaching a concern about food production for example, as a farmer first — one who can prove where every pound of potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen goes — producers might want to start discussions based on their own food safety concerns as a father, mother or friend, emphasizing that food safety is important to them as well. Pointing to one U.S. poultry operation that has a 24-hour live Internet broadcast from inside its barn, Arnot said that open, honest and transparent forthcomingness is also key to gaining and maintaining public trust.

But he also acknowledged that might mean taking a hard look at the work you do as well, making sure it is being done in a way that supports transparency.

“How does the old saying go? If you’re going to be naked in a glass house, you better start working out right now,” he said.

Producers also need to warm up to skepticism when engaging in dialogue and resist the urge to get their backs up when opinions do clash.

“Embrace skepticism; it’s not personal, it’s a social condition,” Arnot said. “Don’t take it personally if people are skeptical and raise questions.”

No premium

Don’t think that doing the right thing comes with a premium either, he said, adding that he is often asked by producers what the consumer is willing to pay in order to get one thing or another in terms of production practices.

“The answer is nothing,” said the CEO. “There is no premium for doing what’s right, there is a penalty for violating public trust, but there is no premium for operating in a way consistent with basic social expectations. Now you can help shape those expectations by being more involved in those conversations, but you’re not going to get paid more for doing what’s right.”

That said, consumers are also forgiving when trust has been built, he added. If producers are transparent and forthcoming when something has gone wrong, the public is likely to be flexible and accommodating if they know the producer was honest and has a plan to fix the problem.

“No one expects you to be perfect,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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