How much do consumers really know about food?

Perhaps it is a case of multiple copy-and-paste events but I was surprised to read and hear recently in several occasions something that intrigued me. According to some research, millennials would know a lot more than their parents and previous generations about food and how it is produced. It surprised me because I wish I could bump into millennials who know something about food. Actually I wish I could bump into people from any generation that would have some significant knowledge of food and agriculture. I also disagree with those who claim that people have never known as little about food and agriculture as nowadays, but those have their own hidden agenda.

The main reason marketers are interested in the millennials is that this group has much more money than previous generations, or at least that is the thinking. Since the world population has more than tripled since 1950, representing an increase of more than 5 billion people, it is no surprise that millennials represent a financial force. However, one should look at the average individual financial situation of a millennial compared with previous generations. If the group has more money as a whole but less on an individual basis, their consumption pattern might not be as expected. Also, it would be wise to compare between regions as the boost might be different depending on whether they live in emerging countries or mature developed countries. 

So, have I been sleeping too much lately or do I meet the wrong people? Or is it a matter of confusing terms as it seems to happen more and more. Do millennials have more knowledge about food, or is it perhaps that they have access to more information? As Einstein supposedly said, “Information is not knowledge” and this might be truer more than ever in today’s world where we are constantly buried in information, some of it being accurate and most of it being not so, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It would be good to think about several concepts that we tend to consider synonyms while they are quite different: data, information, fact, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I will try to explain the difference by using a very food and agriculture related metaphor.

Imagine data as a field of potatoes. There are plenty of plants and potatoes in the field and you are going to harvest. All you do is to collect all the potatoes from the field and eventually bring them to a place where you will sort out what you have harvested. At that stage, potatoes are just like data. It is raw units without any processing of any sort. All you can tell at this stage is how many potatoes you have, what they are and what the total volume is.

Once the potatoes have been harvested, you are going to look at them in more detail. You are going to sort out the small ones from the larger ones. You are going to sort out the ones that may have been damaged or are not proper to send to market. Depending on the criteria that are useful for you, you are going to distribute your potatoes into small groups according to various qualities and uses. Each group or package has a particular relevance. You want to make these groups in such a way that they are useful, practical and to make something good out of each group. Each group contains information that either your customers if you sell the potatoes or the person who cooks will use to decide what to do with the potatoes. Are they for mashing, for frying, for sautéing, for baking, etc…?

Once the potatoes have been sorted out, you have information and that information could fit on a label. If the label is accurate, anyone using the group of potatoes will have some knowledge of what the bag contains, but they will not have all the knowledge. Will other users know when the potatoes have been harvested, what variety they are, how they have been produced and by whom and if they are safe to eat? Here is why regulations, traceability and transparency increase the amount of information to the user who will use the batch of potatoes. As long as the information is correct, it equates to some knowledge. If the information in incomplete, so is the knowledge. If the information is incorrect, it is neither knowledge nor truth and can lead to wrong decisions by the user. If the information is incorrect on purpose, it is deception and even fraud (think about the case of horse meat that was labelled as beef in Europe a couple of years ago, the numerous cases of fraudulent fish names or the fact that many honey pots might contain more corn fructose syrup than honey but labelled as if it were all pure honey). Here is a case for information vs. misinformation vs. disinformation vs. deception and lies.

So imagine that the gossip mill now says that your potatoes have been contaminated by some disease or some creatures roaming in your field. How can you tell and how can the user of your potatoes tell? You grew the potatoes and you sorted them out, so you can tell if there were signs of disease, such as for instance black spots. You grow potatoes and you know what kind of disease of defect that may mean. How do you know and how do you translate the information (presence of black spots) into the knowledge of what the cause is? You know from experience, and that is exactly the difference between information and knowledge. Experience can be your own or someone else’s that you consult on the problem at hand. You and they have gathered experience into knowledge. Experience links information and facts into knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge is a learning process. Reading information is not. So, what will happen with the person at home buying a bag of potatoes and finding black spots? If they do not have the experience, their imagination can go wild and they will enter their interpretation into the gossip mill (aka as social media). Many people without knowledge will forward the posting. Since they have no knowledge of potatoes they will not know if they should or not blow life in the gossip, but since something “weird” happened, how could they resist the urge to share and they will forward the information to the larger community and add their own comments such as “ew!!” , “gross!!”, “unacceptable!!”,  “shame!!” or even “boycott Christophe’s potatoes because they are weird and probably not naturally grown, etc…” and that is how a simple little problem can spin out of control and how ignorance and basic human nature attraction for gossip will change the fate of my growing potatoes.

Information is one thing and knowledge is another, but what about the truth? If I come with facts to explain what the deal is with my potatoes, two things can happen: people will believe me or they will not. Trust is an essential part in having customers believing the explanation. If people do not trust me, there is a good chance that they will not believe me. If they trust me, that is not a guarantee that they necessarily will trust me. Trust is always difficult to earn. It is difficult to earn the first time. It is incredibly easy to lose. To regain a second time, it is much more difficult than it was the first time. Trust depends on other people’s beliefs and it depends on the ability to convince. But when you take the broader picture of the gossip mill, in which other people will bring arguments against my explanation, there is competition for trust, whom do they trust more, me and my explanation or the social media mob? People do not necessarily trust those with knowledge, they trust those they believe. That can be dangerous. After all, it is easy to have an opinion. Everyone can have one on everything. having an opinion is not the same as to be an expert. No knowledge is required to have an opinion. usually, all it takes for people to give their opinion is to believe they know. Perhaps, this is the worst when it comes to information: people who think they know but don’t. I come across quite a few of those.  Beliefs always weigh more than facts, and that is why facts alone are not helpful when it comes to telling the true story about the potatoes. Being disappointed by my potatoes would not be a rational experience. It would be experienced by the users as a breach of confidence in the produce and the supplier. The first step is to connect at that emotional level of the disappointment. Only by connecting emotionally is it possible to gradually bring the conversation to more rational aspects. The other important part in regaining trust is to make sure to not disappoint again. People accept one mistake but they do not take well the same mistake when it is made again.

So, do the younger generations know about their food is produced? They may truly think that they do, but that is not the same as actually knowing. I also have mixed feelings about opposing generations. It is likely that millennials have different concerns, different values and different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Yet, I have the strong feeling that I see more variation within a generation than I see between generations. Millennials may be exposed to a lot of information, but do they sort out the information in a rational way or do they simply choose the information coming from people they believe or who share the same values? I believe (I won’t be bold as to say I know) that the latter prevail. The difference may not be that one generation knows more about food and agriculture but that they are more concerned about it. That is not the same and it has little to do with knowledge. I also suspect that the concern is not just about food but it is more of an existential concern in times of uncertainty. It always seems that people are more critical about their food when they are pessimistic about the future. When everything goes well, those concerns do not seem to weigh as much.

What effect it will have on future food and agriculture depends largely on whom future consumers decide to believe. Psychology plays a very important part in food choices and I do not expect that to change any time soon. It has advantages but also disadvantages. Is it wise to think this way? Wisdom is the ability to discern the truth from beliefs to make the right decisions. The future will tell if wisdom will go in parallel with information.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Curiosity: it’s where the future starts

The challenges ahead are bigger than ever before, and be assured that they will bigger in the future. The good news is that progress and new developments in science and technology are bigger and faster than ever, too. From a technical point of view, I would dare to say that the solutions to the challenges already exist or are very close. Often, the problem is that these solutions are not immediately economically viable. In such a fast-changing world, curiosity is undoubtedly one of the most desirable qualities to adapt timely and find new ways of running the business.

Perhaps, it is because a lot of my work is about finding as much information and gathering as much knowledge as possible about all sorts of technologies, facts, systems, science and experiences that I find curiosity quite natural. Perhaps it is also because I have a curious nature. In my daily activities, I find that people are relatively not curious enough. I also can see that the ones who have that quality are always ahead of the pack. What is really amazing is how much is already out there. The trick is to find it and to know about it. Often, the information originates from very different business sectors or comes from other parts of the world or is available in a different language. I can see regularly a lot of organizations busy reinventing the wheel, going through the pain of setting up research and spending vast amounts of time, money and resources to find out results that are already available and that they could have taken over and adjusted to their particular situations. Curiosity can deliver huge savings.

Curiosity is quite time consuming. That is a fact and its main drawback. This may be the reason why it does not happen enough. The quest does not always deliver, although for those who have a proper strategy, the yield is quite good. Curiosity, for a business, cannot be a random activity. It has to be structured and carried out with discipline. There is quite a similarity between curiosity and access to food. There are those who know where to find the tasty mushrooms in the woods and those who get lost in the forest. It is the same thing when going out there to find knowledge. Some are talented and find it often and fast and others just wander endlessly without spotting anything significant. Just as it is important to know the right spots to find food when hunting and gathering, there are some places where the good knowledge is. As with food, it is important to know the supplier and know the origin of the knowledge. To pursue the comparison with mushrooms, some knowledge is good and some can be toxic. The supply chain is just as important, especially considering how fast and far social media can replicate and distribute information. When it comes to knowledge, the reliability, seriousness and quality of the sources is of utmost importance. A discerning knowledge consumer must be critical about what they find. A solid critical sense is of the utmost importance. Regardless of whether the knowledge is found through a hunting/gathering activity or comes from a knowledge farm, it is essential to double-check its validity. The packaging can be deceiving.

Next to focused curiosity activities, it is also important to encourage what I would call open curiosity, in which there is no particular objective but just letting new findings lead to new discoveries. There is no business discipline involved. It more often research you would do in your free time. One piece of information generates interest to know more and you just follow. It is similar to a child-like exploration in which each answer triggers the next “why?” question. It is pure learning. There is no way to tell when or even whether the new learned knowledge will be useful, but there is no such thing as too much knowledge. The trick is to be able to retrieve it when it is needed.

Another important aspect of curiosity is to link experience to knowledge. Usually, knowledge is the result of certain protocols. The knowledge itself takes its full dimension and value only through the use we make of it. Some people make good use and others do not. When gathering new knowledge, it is essential to also learn about the lessons from the experience of those who used it. Why did certain things work in certain conditions and others did not? Which factors influenced the outcome and how would different conditions or a different environment affect the outcome? Getting the big picture is a very important part of curiosity. Expanding the scope and seeing how the pieces of the puzzle come together are the foundation of future successful strategy and adaptation.

Curiosity is a great asset when it comes to face and prepare the future. It is not the whole story, though. Food and agriculture are not intellectual exercises. They must deliver concrete products and results. It is nice to be curious but what do you do with that? The answer to this question is quite simple: action.

According to the saying, knowledge is power. Knowledge is true power only when it is active and circulates. Knowledge that remains in a brain or in a drawer is not very useful for the greater good. The first step that I advise curious people to do is to share what they learn. It is even easier today with the Internet, and there is a lot of knowledge out there. By sharing, I do not mean simply copy and paste or click the share button. Before sharing, it is essential to make sure that what you share is quality. There is too much information that is spread on social media while clearly not critically reviewed, not to say not even read, as it is quite often the case. The mindset here is a mix of enthusiasm, critical thinking and practical service orientation. The knowledge must be correct and the message must come over. It also must be useful to the recipients. It must connect to their needs and add value to them. The final result has to be better food through more efficient and sustainable systems that are financially viable. In the food and agriculture sector, it must lead to always more collaboration and knowledge transfer in all directions within the entire value chain. Often, the weakness of communication is that it stays too long in the same circle and other links, consumers in particular, are kept too long out of the loop. It results too often in misunderstanding, distrust and erroneous perception.

Through collaboration and brainstorming, curiosity helps create a more accurate and achievable vision of the future, on which action can further be carried out to shape the future. From this angle, it makes no doubt that collaboration between all stakeholders is an ongoing process. This is especially true with technology. There are new developments all the time and it certainly takes a curious mind to be able to keep up with novelties. It actually takes many curious minds, considering how huge the quantity of knowledge and information is. It also takes minds that can connect all the dots, and also connect with each other. Although time consuming, the back and forth collaboration, together with ongoing feedback about performance and new demands, allows all links of the chain to know better what the objectives are and how to foster ongoing improvement. As many new technological developments come from outside the food and agriculture sectors, I believe it is critical that the food producers be proactive in the development of technologies and applications, but stating clearly what they expect from technology suppliers and tell them what they expect from them. It is never too early to let them know what your problems, limitations and/or objectives are, so that they can work on it as soon as possible. Being proactive will help speed up the development of the right products, systems and applications.

In this process, leadership is of the essence. Leadership is essential to create the right dynamics to make knowledge transfer happen, fast and well. The role of leaders here is to make knowledge transfer attractive and stimulating for others, so that more stakeholders participate in the development of innovation. The more pressure they will be on suppliers to bring better solutions to the food sector, the higher the chances it happens, indeed. Leaders must also foster connections and networking across the disciplines, even or actually especially with partners outside of the food and agriculture sector. A vision that includes the bigger picture will have more chances of stimulating the cross-discipline and cross-sector collaboration. At the same time, it is crucial to stay practical. The goal is to produce food, and that must be in the minds of all participants.

Curiosity is really the starting point. It feeds an entire chain of ideas and decisions that are the basis for improvement. There is no doubt that fortune favors the bold. In the never-ending quest towards better foods and better agricultural practices, such a process becomes an illustration of “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. This saying may have not been so true as today. Progress and food security depend on it.

 

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.