Face the facts — trust trumps science for many consumers

And the key to building trust, says expert Charlie Arnot, is to show that farmers are transparent and share the same values as consumers

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When it comes to talking about agriculture, a “just the facts” approach doesn’t cut it anymore.

Attitudes towards the food industry have changed and those in agriculture have to adopt new tactics to reach out to consumers, said Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity.

“People are fundamentally more skeptical about food than ever before, which is a great frustration to people in agriculture,” said Arnot, CEO of the American non-profit organization, which is dedicated to building consumer confidence in the food system.

man speaking at conference
Charlie Arnot photo: Alexis Kienlen

“We find ourselves in a different place today, which means we need to adopt some new strategies. We can’t continue to do the same things we did 10, 20 or 30 years ago and expect them to work in this rapidly changing environment.”

The Internet has changed how people learn about food, and controlling the message on this or any other topic is no longer possible, Arnot told attendees at a recent social licensing conference here.

“My argument would be that the Internet is to food as television was to the Vietnam War because it has fundamentally changed the access to information,” Arnot told a packed room of producers, industry leaders, and government officials.

A skeptical public

But there’s been other big changes — skepticism of all institutions is the new cultural norm and people no longer communicate the way they once did, he said.

The Internet plays into that, too. People look for information aligned with their values and use it to buttress their beliefs rather than looking to authority figures. And there’s no shortage of self-appointed experts who don’t back up their opinions with facts or credible research.

Like it or not, said Arnot, these people often hold more sway than authority figures.

But there are strategies that people in agriculture can adopt in order to maintain social licence and public trust, he added.

“People in agriculture need to be champions of transparency in an age where anyone who has a cellphone is a cinematographer,” he said. “Increasing the transparency has the greatest effect on those who are most skeptical about who we are and what we do.”

Social licence

Trust is the primary driver of social licence — the popular term for having public support for an activity.

Trust is developed in three ways, said Arnot.

Having the support of family, friends and experts is the first element.

The second is competency, which includes technical capacity and science. But farmers tend to think that the public doesn’t understand the science in agriculture and so wrongly believe the “just the facts” approach is enough to win the day, he said.

“The assumption is that if we give them more facts, they’ll be more rational and come to our side of the argument,” said Arnot. “If they haven’t come to our side of the argument, it must be because we haven’t given them the right facts.”

This approach doesn’t work because shared values — the third element — are actually more important in building trust, he said.

His organization has surveyed 6,000 Americans, asking them questions about farming, food safety, sustainability and other food-related issues. It found that shared values are three to five times more important in building trust than competency.

Arnot recommends people in agriculture talk about their values and look at it through that lens, rather than putting the emphasis on sharing facts.

Watch your language

It’s especially important to choose your words carefully, as the wrong language can undermine your argument, he said.

For example, talking about economic returns suggests the motivation is financial and self-interested, which erodes trust.

Giving consumers information about science and economics may increase knowledge, but it will do nothing to influence how they feel or what they believe, said Arnot. It’s better to demonstrate that farmers want the same things as consumers.

“Be open and transparent; answer and ask questions; and admit you have more to learn,” he said. “Don’t abandon science — but focus on talking about values and ethics instead.

“People are much more likely to make decisions based on what they feel or what they believe, rather than what they know. That’s why efforts to educate the public are not going to be successful.”

The Food Babe

book cover
The Food Babe — and her unsubstantiated allegations about food “toxins” — drives many in agriculture up the wall, but an expert on building trust in the food system says she offers lessons on how to connect with consumers.

Arnot held up one of the most polarizing critics of modern agriculture as someone who farmers can learn from.

Vani Hari — a.k.a. The Food Babe — was just named by Time magazine as one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet. Despite having no training in food science, Hari has become an international bestselling author and attracted more than 85,000 Twitter followers by railing against what she calls poisons in food.

Although the lack of science behind her claims infuriates farmers and others in the food industry, she appeals to consumer values because she positions herself as an ordinary, concerned citizen, said Arnot.

To connect with consumers in that way, advocates for farming need to be seen as a trusted resource, he said. Part of that involves sharing both positive and negative information, even if the latter might turn off some consumers. But make sure the information you put out is “easy to find (and) helpful for making informed decisions.”

Arnot pointed to the handling of the Maple Leaf listeria crisis as an example of a job well done because the company was open and transparent right from the start.

“People want us to be forthcoming, not just honest,” he said.

Finally, view consumers’ worry and fears about the food system as an opportunity to show that you care about things such as animal welfare, the environment, and providing healthy food to families.

“Skepticism is so much better than indifference,” he said. “Embrace that as an opportunity to have a conversation about who we are and what we do. Don’t become defensive. Skepticism is the fuel for scientific discovery.”

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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