Farmers key in effort to win hearts and minds of consumers

American expert says the public tunes out scientists, so it’s up to producers to 
convince consumers that they produce safe, wholesome food

Like it or not, it’s up to you, farmers.

Producers must lead the line in the battle to convince consumers that GM crops, pesticides, and other ag technologies are good things, FarmTech attendees were told.

“We in the ag sector have made a big mistake in not getting in front of this,” said Julie Borlaug, associate director of external relations for the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.

“We thought scientists could do the talking for us and they would help push the cause forward, and unfortunately that’s not what happened.”

Bringing high-yielding varieties to developing nations and promoting modern production practices earned Norman Borlaug the title of ‘father of the Green Revolution.’

Bringing high-yielding varieties to developing nations and promoting modern production practices earned Norman Borlaug the title of ‘father of the Green Revolution.’
photo: File

Even her famous grandfather Norman Borlaug — known as the father of the Green Revolution — was “awful” at defending the scientific advances that have fuelled the massive rise in food production in the last half-century, she said.

“He would get in an argument with what he called a ‘Greenie’ and it didn’t go well,” Borlaug said after her presentation.

“Typically, he would put up his hand and say, ‘I’m done with you.’ Well, we’re not winning anyone when we do that.”

It’s not just that being defensive and angry doesn’t work, it’s that so many consumers aren’t persuaded by experts in science — they’ve got their own trusted sources, said Borlaug.

“Remember, we’re talking to people who are far removed from agriculture,” she said. “We’re talking about moms who believe everything their 20-year-old yoga instructor tells them and everything Facebook tells them.”

But farmers are welcome participants in the conversation about topics such as genetic modification, use of chemicals, and food safety if they are open, honest, and genuine, she said.

However, they also have to be savvy and meet consumers on their own ground, which today is located on the Internet.

“You have to make your conversations personal,” she said. “We really have to ask farmers to step up and join social media and start conveying the message about what they do. We have to say that farming is not easy and it is a business, but we have to have farmers talking about the role of technology. Scientists just can’t do it — their messaging just doesn’t come across.”

When Borlaug talks to people about the efforts of the Borlaug Institute to combat hunger in impoverished countries, she focuses on how modern varieties coupled with synthetic fertilizers and farm chemicals could radically improve the lives of women, who do most of the farming.

“I ask, ‘How can you be for women without being in favour of bringing innovation and technology to developing countries?’”

She takes the same approach when talking about agriculture in North America. For example, she points to the threat of citrus greening. The bacterial disease has infested much of Florida’s citrus groves and her university is working on a genetically modified orange that could be that industry’s only hope.

“I ask moms how many give orange juice to their children every morning and then ask, ‘Are you ready not to have orange juice or are you ready to pay triple the price?’” she said. “I talk about tangible things that are important to them.”

Borlaug offered several suggestions on how farmers can reach out to consumers (see sidebar) but her main plea was not to get angry and refuse to engage.

“You have to take this ridiculousness seriously,” she said.

About the author

Editor

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

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