Less controversy thanks to transparency

The agribusiness and food industry come regularly in the media with some bad publicity. As such, it does not differ from other industries, as criticism comes with the territory.

What is unfortunate is that the agribusiness mostly responds to this in a rather defensive manner, either by attempting to bring rational scientific facts or by denying the facts that their opponents bring forward.

Criticism of food and food quality is not new. When I started my professional life, I had been lent a book about how food in general, and animal husbandry in particular, are perceived. The introduction of this book was a long complaint about the quality of bread, and by then (in the mid 80’s) the arguments presented sounded quite familiar to me. The funny part of it was that in fact this text was, according to the author, a report written in Ancient Egypt, some 3,000 years ago.

Although bad publicity and criticism are obviously no novelty when it comes to food, it seems that the industry has a hard time fighting this battle.

Some pressure is goodAs such, criticism is not a bad thing as long as it is not done in bad faith with the only purpose to bring damage. There is nothing wrong with consumers being concerned about the quality of the food they eat, and about the way it is produced. Being worried about whether and how antibiotics or hormones are used, about the potential problems to the environment linked to intensive production is quite legitimate when you are rather ignorant of production techniques. After all, nobody has ever claimed that any industry was perfect, and business is always work in progress. It is utmost important for all of us to have watchdogs in order to make sure that we do not get into excesses that can lead to irreparable damage.

Let’s also realize that only a tiny minority of people now work in agriculture and that most city residents have a very limited, if any, knowledge of how farms are operated. On the other hand, they have very strong, often idealistic and romantic, opinions on how they think farming should be, regardless of whether it is viable or if it can provide them enough food. Surveys with city kids have shown that many of them do not make any connection between eggs and hens, or between milk and cows and calves. For many, it is not even a clear fact that in order to get meat, one has to kill an animal.

Further, it is human nature to pick on the big guy, as we all love the story of David defeating Goliath. Moreover, bad news, the more sensational the better, always get more attention than good news, like the recent article published in Time. There is nothing like fear to get people glued to their TVs or reading reports in the papers or on internet. These psychological traits are quite difficult to deal with.

The problem with defensiveness, when dealing with bad publicity, is that it always brings the defendant in an awkward position. If this not handled properly, it can very easily come over as suspicious, which reinforces the poor impression.

Transparency creates trustIn my opinion, the only proper way forward about information on agriculture and food is transparency. Only transparency can eliminate (or at least reduce to a minimum) negative publicity. Only by being candid and open about the way food is produced, can the agricultural community inform properly the public.

Remember that issues around food production are highly emotional, as they deal with much more than just nutrition. This is why responding with rational arguments has so little effectiveness. First, emotional concerns must be dealt with as emotions, not merely with cold scientific facts. Only once the emotional connection has been established, it is possible to bring the communication to more rational aspects and facts.

The better informed the public is, the easier it is to also discuss and address issues that come along the way. Candour is only the first step, the clearly expressed will to always improve the way food is produced is absolutely necessary, and this is not about vague promises. It must come with an open agenda of issues that the industry knows about and is (and will be) addressing without complacency. A clear commitment to a plan of actions with defined time lines is the best way to create and restore trust with consumers. And the best way to score in this is by taking the initiative and the lead. The industry and this includes any participant in the production chain and its watchdogs, from breeding to retail, needs to make these decisions, instead of having to react to changes in legislation, which very often is the result of pressure from the public opinion.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.