Survey raises doubts on consumer views regarding U.S. ag feeding the world

Oct 29, 2011
by DTN

Consumers want the U.S. to help other countries feed themselves rather than relying on American farmers to feed the world, according to a food-industry survey released last week.

Food prices are a bigger concern now than they were just a year ago, according to a study on U.S. consumer attitudes conducted by the Center for Food Integrity CFI).

Those views have some implications about how Americans view food production policies and food aid, especially given the frequent message from farmers that U.S. agriculture “feeds the world.”

CFI released its study on 2011 consumer trust research at the group’s food summit in Chicago. The survey polled 2,004 men and women across the country about various economic and food issues. About 220 people throughout the food chain attended the meeting, including some farmers and agricultural groups. CFI has built its meeting around the annual examination of consumer perceptions.

A large segment of consumers don’t believe U.S. farmers should be responsible for feeding the world.

Only 15 percent of consumers strongly agreed that U.S. farmers should be responsible for feeding the world.

“What we find from consumers is, ‘It’s not your job,’” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI.

Arnot added that if consumers don’t believe U.S. agriculture has a responsibility to feed the world, then the industry can’t build consumer support for today’s farming by simply claiming we need to feed more people.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 40 percent of respondents ranked “feeding the world” in the low end of the range and the mean score was a 4.23.

Fifty-three percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that it is more important for the U.S. to teach developing nations how to feed themselves than to export food to them. That view hit a mean score of 7.35 in the ranking.

In listing of consumer concerns, the U.S. economy, rising food costs and food safety ranked high, but issues such as global warming and having enough food to feed people in developing countries ranked lowest.

These views raise questions considering people in agriculture have been repeatedly told farmers globally have to double food production to keep pace with rising population and incomes.

It’s not uncommon for consumers to put their own issues ahead of others in a survey. The problem, or difference, with the view that U.S. farmers shouldn’t take care of the world is the lack of broader challenges in such a question, said Ted McKinney, who heads public affairs globally for Elanco Animal Health.

“I would implore them that the world, the U.S., the Middle East, developed countries and developing countries, we all have to keep the pedal to the metal on increasing food production, and that includes food safety, quality of food, but, yes, the quantity of food,” McKinney said.

The survey also showed that consumers have different levels of trust regarding “family farms” versus “commercial farms.” That extends to what consumers expect, and the level of outside verification needed for these farmers.

Closer to home, the economy continues to weigh on consumer choices. Food prices are a bigger concern now than they were just a year ago to a slightly higher percentage of people, with 53 percent of people ranking prices as 8 or higher on the scale.

Yet, Americans largely recognize that U.S. food remains among the most affordable in the world, with the percentages and mean score staying almost constant with last year’s figures. The survey showed 56 percent of people ranking that view between a 4 and a 7 on the scale, and another 30 percent ranking it between 8 and 10.

The survey showed consistent dips in questions about the confidence in food safety. For instance, 10 percent fewer people than last year think today’s food is safer than when they were children. Further, fewer consumers think they have all the information they want about how and where their food is produced, despite aggressive industry efforts to share more information.

“There is more information now than there was before, but somehow we are not making that connection,” Arnot said.

When asked if U.S. meat is derived from humanelytreated animals, 7 percent fewer people gave that perception a high ranking, and 4 percent more gave that a low ranking. Yet, fewer people would support a state law to ensure humane treatment of animals. It’s a question of whether people may be tired of the government having an answer for everything, Arnot said.

“This may be a function of fatigue in government regulation,” Arnot said.

Every consumer-acceptance forum eventually comes around to how consumers view ingredients from genetically-modified crops. Susan Borra, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the major lobby for grocers, said on a forum panel that people in the food business need to communicate the benefits and risks of their products, be transparent and have a continuous dialogue with consumers.

Grocers are taking on new roles in food safety and nutrition, partially to help build more consumer loyalty. Some chains are hiring nutritionists to work in stores, while Safeway has even hired a chief medical officer for food issues.

Some of those initiatives by retailers are meant to help consumers feel more confident about their food choices. Consumer research by FMI shows 33 percent of consumers think the U.S. food system is heading in the right direction while 58 percent think it is the wrong direction.

The economy also has had an impact on what people perceive is important in groceries, FMI research shows.

Food prices are the biggest issue when choosing a grocery store, for instance, though prices ranked fourth with consumers back in 2005. Still, consumers maintain high-quality fruits and vegetables, as well as highquality meats both remain important factors in shopping for food.

When it comes to technol ogy such as genetically modified crops, Borra said people don’t want to hear about environmental benefits or increases in overall crop production. Consumers want to know what the benefits are for their family. Consumers see benefits affecting them as taste, health, safety and price.

Other information from FMI shows consumers rely more on themselves than anyone else for ensuring their food is safe. They also trust grocers on food safety—90 percent trust the grocers, compared to 80 percent trusting USDA and 78 percent trusting the Food and Drug Administration. — Chris Clayton, DTN