Swimming in circles – Part II: BC salmon farmers are proud!

December 9, 2010

In Swimming in circles, I was mentioning that salmon farmers should communicate more about their people, their work and the pride of doing what they do. My article had caught their attention, as I have several contacts and retweets and other things of the same nature. I do not know if my article is the cause, or if communicating pride was in the works anyway, but over the last few days, I have seen quite a number of messages and blogs on that very theme. Of course, this made me curious and I clicked on the links. The titles were clear: they are proud of being salmon farmers, but the text comes a bit short of communicating the passion. That is too bad. I had expected better.

I do not think that the message will reach the public this way. What the salmon farmers need to do is to come over here to Vancouver and talk to people in the street. Only by having personal contact, will they have a true chance of convincing the passers-by. One of the reasons why the environmentalists are successful is exactly because they go to the people to bring their message. They ask you in the street if you have a minute to talk about whatever it is they want to talk to you. The salmon superheroes that I was mentioning in that previous article of mine understand that communication is a contact sport. They went to the offices of the salmon farming companies in Campbell River to hand over the (super?) condoms, even if that meant having to deal with the company’s security officer.

I know to ideal spots in Vancouver for such interaction with the public about salmon farming. The first one is in Kitsilano, at the corner of 4th Avenue and Vine Street. There is the Capers Community Market (now owned by USA’s Whole Foods Market). This is a store selling many organic food items, sometimes for twice the price as at the Canadian Superstore, for the very same items. Environmentally conscious Kitsilano shoppers are quite eager to pay the voluntary eco-tax (Unless in their case it is the ego-tax. Not sure). Interesting details: the David Suzuki Foundation, a strong opponent of salmon farming in open nets, has its offices in the very same block as this store. Great way of killing two birds with one stone.

The second spot is the Fishermen Wharf, near Granville Island. Fishermen sell their catches there to the same ecgo-tax volunteers. The public is welcome there with a sign telling “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon” and other similar “friendly” slogans. After all, fishermen are proud, too.

Swimming in circles

November 21, 2010

If there is a never-ending feud in the food industry, the one here in British Columbia (BC) about farmed salmon certainly should be put on top of the list. The fight between salmon farmers and environmentalists has been going on for as long as the industry has been around, and it looks as if it will keep lasting for a long time to come.

In previous articles, I have addressed some of my views about the poor perception of some areas of food production and the inability of the industry to connect. The BC salmon industry certainly seems to have difficulties to fight this battle.

I still do not quite understand why they have such a hard time. On the other hand, maybe I just do know too well why.

The controversy is much fiercer in BC than it is in other farmed salmon producing countries. Perhaps, this is because BC farms salmon in the only region where wild salmon is still quite abundant, and this region of the world is still a direct interface between wilderness and human activity.

Opponents of salmon farming came out last week with “superheroes” who were going to put things right of course. Here is their website. Clearly, some people have a lot of imagination. Another PR event was the release, also last week, by the salmon farming industry of a 30-minute video, titled Silver Harvest,  that would put things right of course. Here is the link to Silver Harvest. These two recent PR activities made me come to write the following lines.

I have not so much to say about the superheroes stunt, except that their creators are a bit short on sense of humor and of creativity. Captain Condom? Batman and Spider-Salmon? Come on, anyone can do better than that.  Since they are there to save the wild salmon, the least they could have done is to give the names of the wild Pacific salmon. I had expected Captain Sockeye, Lady Pink, King Chinook, Mighty Coho and Superchum instead. Unless they are stuck in teen years, they sound more like Halloween pranksters.

The industry video was announced with lots of fervor by industry tweets and I was curious to see if finally they would reach the hearts of the public. There, too, I ended disappointed. After a good start, a farmers’ crew sailing to the farms, I thought they would glorify the farmer’s job by showing a typical day at the farm. Not really. The video then focused about how many mistakes the industry made in the past, making me think that, after all, the industry opponents were right to be as active as they had been. I am not going to go in details about a number of statements that made me raise my eyebrows. I prefer to express here what I would like this industry to communicate, instead of the constant defensiveness, the constant reference to facts and science that do not interest the public. Is this video aimed at the public? I am not sure it is, and I am not sure it should be. Who are farmed salmon consumers? For BC farmed salmon, they are mostly North American consumers, and to a lesser extent Japanese and other Asian nationals. Are these consumers concerned about the type of containment system? Hardly. They hardly care where the fresh salmon they buy in stores comes from. With Chile’s ISA epidemics problem that about decimated their production, consumers shifted to Norwegian and BC farmed salmon massively without any further concerns. When Chile’s production returns to previous levels, they will switch back to Chilean salmon just as easily. One of the most important criteria for consumers is the price in the store. Most consumers have no idea how farmed salmon is produced. Only a tiny minority of consumers know, and those who allegedly care do not eat farmed salmon anyway.

I would have liked to see the video showing all the tasks carried out on a farm. I would have loved to see the camera follow a farmer explaining what viewers could see going on on-site, explaining them what they do and why they do it. I would have enjoyed seeing the pride of being a salmon farmer and of providing people with food. Farms employees are good people who want to do a good job that is meaningful to society. They should say very clearly once and for all that they do not accept to be stigmatized and ostracized. They are family people. They have kids to feed and to bring up. They must make clear that no group of society that has the monopoly of morals and ethics. They have to say that enough is enough, and that they deserve respect, even if some do not agree with what they do for a living. A couple of years ago, an email from one of the environmentalists stated that “it is so much fun to torment the salmon farmers”. Harassment is not a sign of superior intelligence. Salmon farmers must also state that if people have ideas to improve production while also ensuring economic activity, they are open to suggestions, but that only constructive and productive criticism is acceptable. The public would understand that.

I wish the video had shown all the steps of production from the egg to the delivery to the final consumers. The content would have been similar, but it would have told an enthusiastic story that could have ended with a group of friends having a blast at a barbecue party with some farmed salmon on the grill. They could have addressed the very same topics but, instead of vague statements of being sustainable, responsible, etc…, well the usual politically correct stuff, they had the opportunity with Silver Harvest to show specifically the precise actions that they have taken, and demonstrate the improvements they made. Thus, the viewers would have seen firsthand the daily activities that ensure that the fish they produce indeed meet all the standards that they claim to use. That does not really happen in Silver Harvest. Instead, I got to listen to a list of topics without real cohesiveness between each other and the announced purpose of the video. People do not like to be told how they should think. They love to come to the conclusions themselves. They do not like being lectured. The public is not stupid, just ignorant. After all, no group has the monopoly of knowledge and science. In Silver Harvest, the speaker who, in my view, would reach the public’s hearts is Richard Harry, President of the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association. He made such a clear and strong plea for the communities that depend so much on aquaculture for their livelihoods.

Too few consumers have a chance to visit a salmon farm, especially considering how far away from farms they live. The camera could have been their eyes. Most people with whom I have talked about farmed salmon in Vancouver simply tell me that they know nothing about salmon farming, but they hear “things”. I always enjoy telling them how farmed salmon is produced, about the good things as well as the areas for improvement. After such a conversation, they usually look at the issue with a different perspective. They are interested in learning more, but they need to know that they can trust the one telling them the story.

Talking spontaneously from the heart about one’s passion is what reaches and wins others’ hearts the best.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How to attract people to food production?

October 18, 2010

With the population increase, food production becomes an increasingly strategic activity. Yet, the food sector does not seem to have the appeal it deserves, and attracting new people appears to be a challenging task.

In countries where the percentage of the active population in agriculture is low, many young people simply have never had any exposure to food production. Their food knowledge is limited to their visits to the local supermarket. Since one can love only what one knows, this seriously restricts the number of potential candidates. In a previous article, “Who will be the farmers of the future?“, I had already asked the question of who would be the farmers of the future. To get the attention of the youth, the food sector needs to become more visible and more approachable. There is a need for more interaction between education and visits to farms and food processors. As I mentioned in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school”, such activities should be part of the normal curriculum. Understanding food is understanding Nature, and understanding Nature is understanding who we are. Food, together with water and air, is the one thing that we cannot live without. This should make clear beyond any doubt how important food production and food supply are for the future of our species.

To attract new people to the food sector, it is also quite important to tell what kind of jobs this sector has to offer. These jobs need to be not only interesting, but they also must offer the candidates the prospect of competitive income, long-term opportunities, and a perceived positive social status. Many students have no idea about the amazing diversity of jobs that agriculture (including aquaculture) and food production have to offer. This is what both the sector and the schools must communicate. Just to name a few and in no particular order, here are some of the possibilities: farming, processing, logistics, planning, sales, marketing, trade, operations, procurement, quality, customer service, IT, banking and finance, nutrition (both animal and human), agronomy, animal husbandry, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, soil science, ecology, climatology, equipment, machinery, fertilizers, irrigation, consumer products, retail, research, education, plant protection, communication and PR, legal, management, knowledge transfer, innovation, politics, services, etc…  Now, you may breathe again!

All these types of activities offer possibilities for work that can be both local and international. These jobs can be indoor or outdoor occupations. Employers are both small and large businesses. Jobs are available in industries, in government agencies, in not-for-profit organizations. Agriculture and food are about life science, and life science is about life. Not many economic sectors can offer such a broad choice of professions.

This said, getting more students in the field of food production will require relentless communication about the present situation as well as about future perspectives. It is necessary for colleges and universities to envision the future. Educating students today must help making them operational for the challenges of the future. Education is nothing less than developing the human resources that will increase the prosperity, the stability and the dynamics of the society of tomorrow. Attracting new students goes further than just agriculture and food production at large. Within food production, every sector also competes to attract new people. Some healthy competition should benefit the whole food chain.

Clearly, there is a need to identify future trends, future challenges and future needs to produce better food and more food. This will require a practical approach. Identify future needs is not an intellectual exercise. It is about providing people with food on a daily basis for the years to come. Identifying future challenges is a team effort between education, research, farmers, businesses and governments. All must work together to create a more secure future. If we want to avoid suboptimal solutions, there cannot be walls between the links of the food production chain.

In my opinion, the most effective way to work towards developing the proper curriculum and attracting students for the jobs of the future is to have a market-driven approach. The question is not only what type of jobs will be needed, but also where will they be needed? To be effective in this process, it is necessary to develop a vision of the things to come for the coming 10 to 20 years, which is the purpose of The Food Futurist (see mission statement). In our fast-changing world, today already belongs to the past. Developing a curriculum on current issues will not prepare students properly for their professional lives, and neither will it serve society properly. Only by identifying what skills will be needed is it possible to offer the best job perspectives for future food professionals, and being able to overcome future challenges. And feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is quite an objective! Identifying the challenges of the future indicates where the best job opportunities are. The action plans to develop tomorrow’s curricula will depend greatly on geographic location. Clearly, India will face with very different demographic, environmental and economic situations than North America, Europe or Brazil will. However, when it comes to food, we will become even more globally interdependent than we are today. This offers many opportunities to train people for work abroad, too.

As my head teacher in Animal Production, the late Julien Coléou, taught us in the first lesson of our final year at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon: “To live is to learn, to create and to fight”. When it comes being prepared for the future, these three pillars of life all need to be on the curriculum.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Regaining the consumer’s trust

September 29, 2010

I read many blogs, articles and opinions about food on a regular basis. Yesterday, I came across an interesting blog post on Meatingplace.com. Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, an authority in the US poultry industry, wrote the article, titled “Consumer trust” after she found out about a survey carried out by the Center for Food Integrity. Basically, the survey concluded that as farms were growing in size, consumers started to wonder if they still had the same values, and although small farms still have the public opinion’s trust, large-scale farms are looked at with suspicion.

That article brought me to think about trust, how it works, and what to do to win it back once it has been lost.

Instead of trying to figure out which group of the population to influence, as the author suggests, I prefer to go back to the basics. If I stop trusting someone, what would he/she have to do to convince me that he/she is trustworthy again? The empathic exercise is a much better way to find out what might work or not. In my opinion, that is exactly what the food sector should do first, instead of pushing the same message without much success.

First, people stops trusting when they are disappointed, when they feel betrayed or when they feel unsafe. By finding out which one of the above caused the loss of trust, and what more specific reasons made the public change their minds, the food sector will already make huge progress.

The second thing to keep in mind is regaining trust is even much more difficult than winning it in the first place. The baggage will stay in the way for a long time. Therefore, a lot of patience is required. There will be no quick fix. A cute video clip, well-thought press releases will not be enough. Far from it. Trust is not something that can be forced, it must be earned. Trust is the result of consistent and positive behavior that benefits the other party.

Once people have lost trust, per definition, they do not believe anything they hear from the distrusted party. In fact, they will hardly listen. Therefore, words will have little impact, unless they go along with actions that confirm that the message is true. If the food industry does not want to change and hopes that communication will be enough to change the public’s mind, nothing will change. When you want someone to prove to you that he/she is reliable, you want to see tangible proof that something is changing in your favor. The most powerful communication tool that really works for regaining trust is the non-verbal communication. The distrusted one must sweat to win trust back. This does not take away that verbal communication must continue. It will keep the relationship alive, but it will not be the critical part for turning around the situation.

Here is just an example to illustrate this. The US meat and poultry sector has undergone many recall procedures about bacterial contamination over the years, and at this day, this problem seems to continue. The industry takes measures to solve the problem, because such recalls are very costly, but as long as there will not be an obvious change in food safety, and recalls keep on happening, consumers will keep doubting how their meat is produced.

Food suppliers have no other choice than to listen to the consumers. The customer is always king. The customer is always right, even when he/she is wrong. A lot of this is about perception. Here is an example of the above. Last June, Greenpeace came with a ranking of Canadian retailers about their seafood procurement, and in particular about their sustainability score on seafood. Costco scored poorly, and their first reaction was to dismiss Greenpeace’s assessment, by basically saying that they are professionals who know what they do, and that they do not really need advice from Greenpeace. Yet, a few weeks later, Costco reorganized its seafood assortment from 15 species back to seven sustainably produced seafood species. That is successful non-verbal communication.

Regaining the consumers’ trust will require transparency, integrity, honesty, a lot of patience and communication, and most of all action towards change that meet the market’s demand. This does not mean that all consumers wishes can be met. After all, life is a continuous negotiation. Food producers and the public need to meet somewhere halfway. Market-driven always trumps production-driven.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Involve in order to convince!

September 16, 2010

A couple of days ago, I came across the following quote: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may not remember, involve me and I will understand”.

I cannot confirm who the author is, as it has been attributed to brilliant thinkers such as Confucius, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin or an unknown Native American. It does not really matter.

This quote brought me to start thinking about what it could mean for the agricultural and food sectors, as they are under fire on a regular basis. Why cannot it convince the public of its message(s)?

Opponents of agribusiness tell a lot about their opinions, they also show a lot of pictures, documents or footage of what they criticize, and they certainly are very active involving as many people as they can. The agriculture and food sector, including aquaculture, also tells a lot, shows some, but not enough about their daily operations, and they seem to have a hard time involving enough outsiders of the industry.

I read many blogs and articles from both sides and I regularly come across the “agri-food” authors wondering why the public is so difficult to convince. After all, the industry claims to have the scientific facts that prove its points. The industry is wondering whether the difference in communication effectiveness is linked to budget amounts or whether it has to do with the quality of the PR officers from both sides. I do not think that it has much to do with either. I have concluded that it comes from the ability to make people understand the story. Therefore, it has to do the ability to involve the public with the industry.

To involve the public, it is necessary to create an emotional connection first. This is critical and, unfortunately for the agribusiness, this appears to be a difficult area. Indeed, how to connect with people who have little, if any, connection with the agricultural world and who rarely get to see the reality by themselves. Media and internet are the channels where they find information. Opponents of agriculture have an easier job in the sense that they want to change the system. The worst that can happen to them if they fail is the status quo. They win nothing, but they lose nothing, either. The industry is the one that has the most to lose. Generally, this translates into a defensive approach, and that does not communicate well. Per definition, being defensive means having lost the initiative. Only the ones who have the initiative can lead, and only the ones who lead have followers.

Connecting emotionally means exactly what it says. Rational arguments do not work. At least not until the connection is made. The typical response of the agri-food sector is about bringing scientific facts, but how to convince people who 1) do not trust you, 2) who are worried about their food and 3) who do not have the scientific knowledge to comprehend these scientific facts? Cold scientific explanations will not work. All this does is creating distance. Not ideal when you need to connect.

I always like to make a comparison with parents of children that just had a nightmare. The children’s fears are not rational, but they are quite real, as you certainly can remember. Normal parents try to comfort the children. And how do they do that? They ask what the problem is. They listen. They empathize. They tell the children that they will go with them to the bedroom and show them that there is no green monster hiding under the bed. They will lie down on the floor and look under the bed. Then, they will take the child to have a look, and that is involving the child! This is how they connect emotionally, which allows them to switch to rational arguments and get the child to go back to sleep. Of course, they will not close the door and leave a little light so that the child does not feel thrown back at the green monster again. They empathize again.

Do you think that telling the child that there is no scientific evidence of green monsters would work, or that research has showed that nightmares are not real? And do you think that dismissing the child’s fear as unfounded and therefore about stupid would work, although that is pretty much the truth? Of course, it would not work, and the child would remain fearful and possibly lose trust in the parents in such a case.

If the agribusiness wants to win the public’s trust, it will have go look under the bed and, together with the public, take a peek at it. The public could hardly care less for the industry’s scientific facts, but it cares about being listened to and being empathized with. Interesting challenge, is it not?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Less controversy thanks to transparency

August 31, 2009

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.