Farm symposium looks at how ag should tell story
Monsanto executive says look at pop culture, use farmers as spokespeople
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The statement that agriculture needs to do a better job telling its story has been repeated so often it has become a cliché.
Like most platitudes, it makes sense on a superficial level but is so vague that it fails to provide much real guidance.
Specifically, who should be telling agriculture's story, and what should they say?
This question was the underlying topic of a recent symposium at the University of Illinois, "Food and Agriculture Communications: The Next Frontier."
A variety of people representing farm groups, agribusiness companies, think tanks, universities and other organizations weighed in on the subject, including this reporter.
Though I can't say the participants arrived at a unified direction for the future, we at least applied some critical thought to the truism of "telling agriculture's story."
The sense that the farming industry needs to improve communications is largely a reaction to negative messages in popular books and films. Fears about pesticides, genetic engineering, corporate farming and inhumane treatment of livestock are seen as a threat to the industry's image.
Several symposium speakers said the current approach to countering these concerns has been overly focused on economics and agronomy.
"I don't think talking about science and technology is the key message to deliver," said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, a biotech company that's no stranger to controversy.
Technological advances have spurred productivity but consumers are seldom interested in such details, he said. Similarly, they don't often think about the flow of electrons when using their mobile devices.
"It's the personal benefit," Fraley said. "What is the direct consumer benefit of having the world's safest food supply?"
Fraley urged the agriculture industry to access pop culture by appealing to the same sensibilities that have made televisions shows like "Dirty Jobs" and "Myth Busters" successful.
Farmers have to be at the forefront of the debate because they have "the most credibility, the most at stake to tell that story," he said.
Ken Cook, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, agreed that farmers should speak for the industry.
However, that's not the same as acting as a mouthpiece for agribusiness companies, Cook said. "They're hiding behind farmers in many cases."
Technology has certainly had a powerful effect on agriculture, but that doesn't mean it's perfect, he said.
Cook criticized some speakers, saying they characterized problems with modern agriculture as myths rather than acknowledging their existence.
The idea that education will dispel public worries is misguided -- many consumers are alarmed by the prospect of eating pesticides, regardless of the industry's justification for using them, he said.
Similarly, showing animals living in confinement facilities is unlikely to improve the livestock industry's image, Cook said. "If you think you can sell that, good luck."
Unless the industry is willing to change in response to public objections to certain farming practices, then it's simply ignoring those concerns, he said. "You're waiting to talk, you're not listening."
Rob Aukerman, president of U.S. operations for Elanco Animal Health, challenged the notion that consumers are afraid of technology. According to a survey commissioned by the company, a vast majority of consumers are primarily concerned about taste, nutrition and cost. Only a very small minority wants to ban or restrict agricultural practices, he said.
"It's too often that this segment has influenced policy and public opinion," Aukerman said.
Food manufacturers should resist using labels like hormone-free or antibiotic-free that reinforce negative stereotypes and entice the "fringe" to take further action, he said.
"We've got to get the food chain to stop shooting itself in the foot," Aukerman said.
During the symposium, the conflict of viewpoints was occasionally referred to as a "battle." The analogy would be apt, except that battles are generally won by one side or the other.
In reality, the image of agriculture among consumers will simply grow more complex as they learn more. The battle of stories isn't likely to have a decisive victor.