SIOUX FALLS — In a battle over educating the public on agriculture and food, a speaker told South Dakota farmers that local education and understanding consumer desires and concerns can go a long way.
Roxi Beck, who works as the consumer engagement director for the Kansas City-based Center for Food Integrity, told attendees of the Governor’s Agriculture Summit July 11 at the Sioux Falls Convention Center that their organization's research shows that 60 percent of the general public wants to know more about the food they are eating — in both how it is grown and manufactured — but the gap is only growing between the food system and what consumers perceive.
Beck said that farmers are better served to try to understanding that consumers are important, and engaging the public about what they do on the farm and in their operations.
“Let’s be as willing to understand their reality as we want them to be understanding ours,” Beck said.
The Center for Food Integrity, a non-profit formed in 2007, says it tries to provide information for a balanced public discussion about food and agriculture. It says it does not lobby or advocate on behalf of brands, companies or production methods, but rather tries to provide credible, balanced information that helps the food system earn trust. The organization is supported by some of the biggest agribusiness and retail companies in the world: Bayer, Cargill, Costco, Kroger, Merck, Smithfield Foods and Sysco.
While it might be uncomfortable, Beck said agriculture and farming has to understand why people are being skeptical. She said people can easily find things to back up their beliefs online.
“We, as agriculture, have spent a lot of time to correct that information,” she said. "We’ve gone to those advocacy groups and told them we’re wrong. But today, they’re going to find information that fits with what they think. Let’s dig into why and what they’ve read. Education can be the outcome but it should not be the outcome.”
Labeling and marketing concerns about phrases such as organic or non-GMO was an area Beck was asked about from the crowd of summit attendees. She said overall, people make decisions based on who and what they trust, and science has a better chance of being understood by people if it’s presented in a way they can understand.
“Organic means a lot of different things to different people, even though it has a very narrow definition through USDA,” Beck said.
And of course, price, taste and convenience will still make an impact, she said, as long as companies are advertising four frozen pizzas for $5, she said.
“People are looking for foods that can check a number of options, but price is still going to make an impact. … Those things still matter.”
Beck said it is impossible to please everyone, and ag producers shouldn’t feel responsible for having to change anyone’s mind. She said it’s important to let consumers know that farmers care.
“The way you can end every conversation with someone that disagrees with you is that we’re grateful to live in a country where we’re fortunate to have so many food choices,” she said. “It’s time to embrace skepticism, embrace concern. Because we haven’t in the past.”