By Kerry Tucker and Teresa Siles
Angry Americans from both sides of the aisle came out to vote Nov. 8, shocking the world by catapulting Donald Trump into the White House with an Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton who won the popular vote.
Research over several years shows a growing sense of pessimism about economic opportunity and the prospect of upward mobility – the very bedrock of the American Dream. For the first time, increasingly large numbers of Americans don’t anticipate their children will do as well financially as they have themselves. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is expanding, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These trends don’t sit well with blue collar and middle class Americans who haven’t seen a salary increase in years while costs for essentials, like health care and education, climb higher and higher.
If the presidential election is any indication, everyday Americans see no other option but to thrown up their hands out of frustration with the establishment and demand change in how traditional institutions like government, business and media meet the needs of society. For many reflecting on the outcome, it boils down to trust, and trust seems to be dwindling all around. As trust fades, traditional institutions are likely to see their latitude to operate challenged like never before.
So what does all this mean to agriculture? Farmers and ranchers know all to well about challenges to their latitude to operate. With others sharing the hot seat, how does agriculture separate itself from other embattled sectors as the new administration takes hold? Most importantly over the long-term, how does agriculture earn and maintain trust in a distrustful environment?While traditional institutions scramble to reinvent themselves, can we frame a more positive conversation about food and agriculture in America? Can we model a contribution of the highest order to improve the lives of people and the planet by producing enough nutritious food to meet demand, beginning with neighbors, state and country followed by the rest of the world?
And while many traditional institutions face scrutiny, there’s at least one advantage that agriculture enjoys and others don’t. Consumers continue to be intrigued by the food they put in their mouths. At the very least, they’re curious about where it’s grown, what’s in it, how it’s made, and who makes it.
Millennials (born between 1980 and the mid 90s), the dominant consumer segment for the foreseeable future, are especially curious about food. Research from The Hartman Group suggests that they tend to be interested in issues like food production practices, GMOs and whether or not a product is grown locally. While both Millennials and Baby Boomers say they “care” about their food, neither group scores well when it comes to their knowledge and familiarity with farming, agriculture and the economics of food production.
A game-changing strategy for earning trust lies with engaging stakeholders – customers, consumers, NGOs and others with a shared interest in food – in a proactive conversation about food, how it’s produced and what the industry is doing about issues consumers care about. Retailers (and other buyers) are often on the front lines of consumer interactions. Helping buyers be more knowledgeable about consumer concerns can add value to buyer-farmer relationships.
It starts with constructive dialogue. Food Foresight, a collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc. and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research, offers guidelines like this for taking the high road en route to earning trust and positively shaping conversations:
· Listen to, acknowledge and respect stakeholder and public concerns;
· Demonstrate best practices and share progress toward their wide application;
· Share what’s possible, what’s not possible and why;
· Commit to transparency and continuous improvement;
· Facilitate stakeholder dialogue and greater understanding for a diversified global food system designed to feed the world in 2050.
With strategies in place to demonstrate transparency and actions to address public concerns comes the potential for greater understanding, trust and support on policy issues from the consumer.
“Conventional agriculture is at a critical crossroads,” says Larry Kaagan, a sociologist, public opinion pollster and founding Food Foresight panelist. “The goal should be to capitalize on public curiosity about who grows their food and how it is grown without being too defensive or demanding more prerogatives than society is willing to grant.”
Support and trust for agriculture, big and small, comes with conversations about concerns we all share from safe food to quality nutrition to animal care and environmental stewardship. If agriculture plays its cards right, we can grow a trust advantage in a business and political climate where distrust runs rampant.
Now in its 23rd year, Food Foresight is a trends intelligence system designed to help partners spot issues and trends early in their development when options are the most plentiful for making a difference in shaping how change unfolds and advances an organization’s vision for the future.
About the Authors: Kerry Tucker is chief strategic counsel to Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc., a strategic planning and public relations firm headquartered in San Diego. Teresa Siles is a vice president who with Tucker heads NST’s agri-food practice.
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