According to book author Michele Payn, Principal at Cause Matters Corp., the U.S. agricultural industry has a serious negative perception problem with the general public. “The anti-agricultural community has a very loud voice, especially on social media,” said Payn, speaking at the 2017 Mid America CropLife Association meeting in Kansas City, MO. “I don’t understand for the life of me why agricultural companies don’t do a better job at fighting back against this.”
And while Payn acknowledged that some agricultural entities have tried to refute anti-agricultural sentiment, many others have remained relatively quiet on the subject. “And when you sit in silence, we all lose,” she said.
Part of the challenge in reaching the general public is the fact that less than 2% of the U.S. population knows anything whatsoever about agriculture and how it operates. “Most consumers have never shaken hands with a farmer,” said Payn. “But based upon what they might know, they probably trust farmers. They don’t trust farming, however.”
To reach this audience with agriculture’s positive message, said Payn, agriculture proponents must try to “get into their shoes” when making their case. “My challenge for you here, if you really want to translate farm practices to Suzy Q. Consumer, is to get out of your work boots, get out of your offices, and get out of your comfort zones and think about making this argument differently,” she said. “Most of these consumers only want to keep their children safe and protect them from something they have been led to believe might harm them.”
To properly do this, Payn suggested that pro-agriculture advocates attempt to try a different approach to connecting with the general public. In most cases, this means moving away from the fact-laden arguments that the industry has tended to rely on for the past decade or so when preaching its point.
“How are we going to fight the challenge of where our food comes from?” asked Payn. “It has to come down to emotion, not science, not facts, and not research. People will forget the way that we farm, but people will never, ever forget the way that we make them feel.”
As an example of this in practice, Payn used genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the very vocal arguments against their consumption/use on the Internet and social media websites. Since their introduction into the agricultural marketplace, the suppliers of GMOs have tended to promote their positive traits using science, facts, and research as assurances to the public. However, many anti-GMO speakers have used the public unfamiliarity with these statements to make GMOs seem “scary.”
“How do we talk about GMOs?” asked Payn. “Every time we are put on the defense by anti-GMO folks, we lose. Instead, we have to make some kind of human connection talking about their positives.”
To do this herself, Payn has asked GMO skeptics if they know anyone suffering from diabetes. “If they do, I tell them I happen to believe that everyone suffering from diabetes has a right to insulin – and that most insulin is made using GMO technology. That tends to open consumers’ minds on the topic and what it might mean for food production.”
If this approach doesn’t work, Payn uses a device now common to most consumers – an iPhone – as a parallel to GMO crops. “I ask them if I take my Facebook app off my iPhone, is it still an iPhone,” she said. “If they say ‘yes,’ I point out that GMO crops are the same as this, with one gene being added to the plant that will protect it against a certain kind of insect, and then the farmer doesn’t have to spray it to protect it.”