Consumers Trust Farmers - So What’s the Problem?
There is a significant effort in Canada (and in fact across North America) to “build public trust in agriculture.” A recent article in the Regina Leader Post made what I thought was a good argument that engaging with consumers can’t only be about a marketing campaign, but needs to be a real conversation to change perceptions and the relationship. I couldn’t agree more about engagement but I think to a degree that the premise of earning trust is perhaps the wrong focus.
While there is some erosion in overall “trust” (depending on how you measure it) our work suggests that there is still a strong favourable perception of farmers specifically, and the food system generally. The issue is that consumers don’t have a good understanding of how food is produced. Several factors are increasing consumer knowledge:
Consumers are increasingly curious about how their food is produced and are asking questions.
Individual brands are positioning their products on specific attributes which highlight differences in production practices (organics, raised without antibiotics, etc.)
Activists are raising issues about production practices that bring doubt into the minds of some consumers.
So what, if anything, is the issue agriculture needs to address? The issue is not gaining trust - but keeping it. The difference is subtle and the approach is not necessarily that different than Toban Dyck suggests in the article in the Leader Post. There is a role for marketing. There is nothing wrong with building the Canada brand or more regional brands for that matter. There is, however, also a pressing need to engage with consumers in order to allow them to participate in the conversation about how food is produced. That conversation is happening with or without the participation of producers so, in reality, engagement is not an option. Canadian producers have a strong story to tell and they should tell it. We do, as I often hear producers say, have an abundant supply of safe and affordable food.
BUT consumers can have input into how their food is produced. They have the right to choose. They can, and many do, pay a premium for attributes that they want. There are likely to be practices that make some producers uncomfortable. There is an argument in favour of gestation crates for sows, for example, but it is clear that most consumers aren’t comfortable with the practice once they hear about it. The option then becomes to change the practice or realize that demand for the product will decrease. That’s not about earning trust. That is about achieving alignment between supplier and buyer.
There is a threat to trust. The threat grows if ag doesn’t engage and isn't open and transparent about how food is produced and why. In most cases, consumers will be happy with what they learn. The key to keeping trust (and the demand) is being willing to change in the case where consumers say they aren’t comfortable with something. That’s likely not to happen a lot. It is more likely if they find out from someone else - if they are surprised.
The difference in approach is subtle. It’s consistent with what Toban Dyck argued. We can’t market our way to trust. We have to engage to maintain trust AND be willing to consider change if we can’t make our case. It’s not just about saying this is the way it is.
We have a golden opportunity to tell our story - to shape our narrative. If we take it and engage with an open mind and flexible approach we will strengthen our relationship with Canadian consumers. If we don’t, we risk a deterioration of trust - and once you’ve lost it, it is harder to win back.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "Consumers Trust Farmers - So What’s the Problem?”. Food Focus Guelph (63), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, October 8th, 2019.