About 98% of the population has no direct connection to agriculture. So it’s not surprise that there are challenges to fostering understanding between farmers and consumers. Some Oklahoma pork producers realized they didn’t know as much as they thought about what today’s consumer thinks when it comes to food and how it’s produced after attending a consumer panel hosted by the Center for Food Integrity.
Oklahoma pork producer Rob Richard says agriculture got behind in this new battle for the consumer by assuming “We’re farmers and we produce food, so people love us, right?”
Richard says, “The good news as I listened to the panel is that they’re open to our story. It’s not too late to turn the tide.”
Nikki Snider, director of marketing and promotions with the Oklahoma Pork Council, says, “The one word that describes how most of the audience felt about this session is eye-opening. Pork producers are busy raising pigs, so they don’t have much time to think about how their products are perceived by those removed from farming.”
The panel provided producers the opportunity to be exposed to consumers’ thoughts, myths about farming and how those myths impact buying decisions, Snider adds.
GMOs: A Meaningless Term?
For example, when asked for a definition of GMOs, the panelists couldn’t answer, even though all of them indicated they purchase non-GMO foods.
Moderator Allyson Perry of the Center for Food Integrity posed many questions like this to the panelists, who were carefully screened to represent a cross-section of consumers with a heightened interest about food.
“The term GMO is really meaningless to consumers today,” Snider says. “They simply believe they’re ‘bad.’”
Most of the panelists agreed that there were “a lot” of GMO foods available, with one responding “thousands” and another, “millions.” The panelists’ fears mostly focused on long-term health issues.
Perry asked if their opinion about GMOs would change if they knew the technology could be used to introduce a naturally occurring gene from an arid plant to create corn that could grow using less water — not only resulting in the use of fewer natural resources but allowing corn to grow in drier climates where populations couldn’t grow their own food before.
One panelist replied, “I find it hard to believe that scientists would spend time and money to use the technology to help something grow faster and easier, more than for profit.”
Early dialogue about GMOs may have led to this perception, as much of the discussion from the food industry focused on farmer profitability and productivity, without explaining benefits to the environment and ability to raise food in difficult climates.
Insights Help Guide Change
These consumer panels can prove challenging for a room full of individuals passionate about food production and eager to educate. Perry instructs the audience to only ask questions of the panelists, not inform them.
“I think everyone in production agriculture should experience a panel like this,” says Jesse Donaldson, purchasing coordinator for the HANOR Company out of Enid, Okla. “We should all be spokespersons for agriculture and we can make a difference.”
The panels provide insights that often encourage organizations to change course, Perry says. “After one recent panel, a member of the audience told me, ‘We’ve wasted the last four years addressing X when consumers aren’t really concerned about that.’”
Snider says she will use what she learned to shift her social media and digital advertising approach.
“After the consumer panel, we better understand the urgency of reaching more consumers on topics that matter most to them,” she says. “Consumers want to hear from farmers. We just have to work harder to reach them and engage them where they are — not wait for them to come looking for us.”
To learn more about CFI consumer panels, contact Allyson Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org.