Technology and trust will feed the world

Jan 18, 2013

The interplay between technology and trust is a delicate and important relationship, and one that is too often off balance in the conversation about beef. Our technology can feed the world, but the issue of trust in that technology needs more attention.

Dr. Gary Smith, distinguished professor emeritus from Colorado State University, spoke to the 2013 meeting of the International Livestock Congress. He and others discussed the extreme technological strides the U.S. agricultural community has made in the effort to feed America and the world. But technology isn’t the only thing that will feed the growing population of the world; trust trumps technology every time.


In keeping with the theme of the congress—“Beef’s Greatest Challenge: Feeding the World”—Smith pointed out the anticipated population growth and the need to feed them all. For example, in the next 50 years, farmers and ranchers will need to raise more food than was produced in the last 10,000 years combined. The usual answer of how humanity will rise to this challenge is with improved technology. It seems like a large order to fill, but Smith started his talk by pointing out how far agriculture innovation has come in a relatively short time.

“The acres of land required to produce enough food to feed one person [for a year] used to be five acres in the 18th century,” Smith told the audience. “It’s a half an acre now.”

Included in his deluge of impressive technology-related ag advancement numbers were some of the following. Between 1987 and 2009: • Farms increased total out put by 50 percent • Soybean production increased by 30 percent • Corn production increased by 38 percent • Red meat and poultry production increased by 46 percent • Milk produced per cow increased by 57 percent As many have brought up on this topic, however, Smith did point out there is a force opposed to the use of agricultural technology. He told the story of how, when he was a boy growing up on the farm in the late ’40s, some people didn’t want farmers like his father to give up the mule-team plow for the tractor. And the same sentiment exists today.

But Smith—and several others of the congress’ speakers—stressed how the ranks of those opposed to agricultural technology are very small. Quoting a study by Dr. Jude Capper, Smith pointed out only about 1.7 percent of the global consumer population actively campaign against the use of modern agricultural technology. Another 4 percent are what are often called “lifestyle buyers,” those consumers who only buy food according to lifestyles such as organics, vegans, ideological vegetarians, and “localvores.” The other 94 percent of the population are either technologyneutral or supportive of technology used in food production.

A later presentation by John Lundeen, senior executive director of Marketing Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, echoed these findings for the U.S. beef consumer.

In the studies he cited, which looked specifically at positive vs. negative perceptions on modernly-produced beef, that fringe group was 8 percent with the overall positive population being 72 percent.

However, when the questions were shifted from perceptions of beef—the consumable product—to the raising of cattle, the lowest level of U.S. consumer confidence grew to 10 percent and the overall positive perception responses dropped to 61 percent. And, notably, millennials—that generation which are the young 20-something adults starting families today—had the largest amount of distrust of any generation of adult consumers surveyed.


In his discussion of trust, Smith quoted President Theodore Roosevelt:

“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

He used this as a segue from the importance of technology to the trumping power of trust. His message was clear; we could have the best science imaginable—it might cure cancer, feed the world 10 times over, and make every puppy in the world happier in the blink of an eye—but if consumers don’t trust it or actively distrust it, it will not be available to use.

Smith offered up another number; trust is three to five times more important to consumers than is competence, which includes skills, ability and technology. He defined trust as the perception of shared ethics and values, and the confidence that others will “do the right thing.”

Both men cited studies, data and information regarding consumer concerns—those areas where their trust is weakest which found the worries, particularly among millennials, are modern practices’ long term effects on their health, the health of their families, and to the wellbeing of the animals involved.

Lundeen said the battle of convincing the consumer modern food technology is valuable to produce ample, affordable food has been won. What hasn’t been won is consumer trust in the long term health effects and animal wellbeing in the world of high-tech agriculture.

He stressed the conversation with consumers needs to shift away from the historical focus on the efficiency and value of the technology, and move to a strategy to instill trust in consumers in those key concerns.

The science and the numbers are important, to be sure, but they are not what will win the trust of consumers.

“It is not enough for farmers and ranchers to produce safe, wholesome food,” Smith reported in his presentation. “It’s also necessary to show that farmers and ranchers are accomplishing larger societal goals.” With consumers who are now concerned with things such as animal welfare, environmental stewardship, and long-term health, farmers and ranchers must communicate to consumers on that level.

This was where both men— and many others at the congress besides—stressed the value of transparency and telling the story of ranching. And not just tell what part of the story they are used to telling— the numbers, the science, the reasons why the technology is valuable and necessary—but tell the story in the ways which meet consumer concerns.

Lundeen presented data from a consumer perception study which found that there is a hierarchy of “frames” or scopes in which agricultural conversations can be presented. The frames in which the stories are told impact how receptive consumers will be and how likely they are to listen to and believe what they are hearing.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is the purely science and economic frame. But if the conversation can be elevated to the human involvement, cattle care, or human health and wellbeing level, consumers are far more receptive to the message, and far more likely to engage the dialog. So if, in your telling of your story to consumers—via social media, in person, or however you do it—you can elevate the topic of, say, a contentious issue like antibiotic use from the economic level to the cattle wellbeing or human health level, you will find a more receptive, engaged consumer audience.

With greater engagement comes greater trust, confidence and a willingness to learn. With more consumers trusting in modern farming on all levels, the population will be harder to sway by negative campaigns. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor