Public Insight: Earning trust in innovation

Connecting with the public to gain broader acceptance.
Crystal Mackay
January 23, 2019
By Crystal Mackay
New digital tool  What are the values that drive consumers when it comes to credibility about information on their food? See the latest research from CCFI on  foodintegrity.ca using a new methodology called ‘digital ethnography’ to document consumer behaviour online to help establish five key segments of consumers based on values and motivations.
New digital tool What are the values that drive consumers when it comes to credibility about information on their food? See the latest research from CCFI on foodintegrity.ca using a new methodology called ‘digital ethnography’ to document consumer behaviour online to help establish five key segments of consumers based on values and motivations. Photo: Adobe Stock
Most Canadians celebrate innovation when it comes to their phones, cars and medical breakthroughs. Break out the party horns!

But where’s the excitement when it comes to technology and food? Why isn’t agriculture invited to the party? It’s largely because of the way those in the agricultural community have traditionally approached the conversation.

“The Agenda”, a well-respected television show on TVO in Ontario, hosted a program on gene editing and technology in food earlier this fall. I was on the panel to talk about consumer views, together with Stuart Smyth of University of Saskatchewan, Ian Affleck of CropLife Canada and Lucy Sharett of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.  

It’s a complex topic and difficult to advance thinking when it gets purposefully cornered into public versus private funding and the need for labelling debates. The host, Steve Paikin, described this new foray into gene editing of food as the first with direct consumer benefits. GMOs, in contrast, have been viewed as only having production benefits.   

The public isn’t interested in hearing about on-farm efficiencies and productivity when it comes to technology that involves the environment, animals and the food they’re feeding their families. All consumers hear with that approach is how innovation benefits the farmer’s bottom line. Inundating them with information and scientific lingo to sway opinion backfires, too.

So, how does agriculture earn its invitation? It’s about engaging in conversations about the benefits of technology and innovation for people, animals and the planet. That’s what resonates in the context of agriculture’s ethical obligation to do what’s right.

Yes, often technology does improve efficiency and productivity, but why is that important to consumers – and you? Focus on the greater good.

Research from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) shows that connecting with consumers on the values that we all share is the key to earning trust.

In fact, it’s three-to-five times more important to earning trust than sharing facts and demonstrating skills and expertise.

Consumers simply want to know that you care about the same things they do, like the highest standards in animal care, and producing safe, affordable, nutritious food in a way that protects and sustains our environment.

The acceptance and rejection of promising innovations like gene editing hinge on how agriculture approaches the conversation now and in the long-run. Earning trust through shared values is an ongoing commitment in all forms of communication: one-on-one and online conversations, presentations, media interviews, marketing materials, public hearings and policymaker engagement.

I’m not discounting facts and science as an important part of the dialogue – they’re absolutely necessary. But consider this: In CFI trust surveys, when participants are provided with information alone on a controversial food topic like GMOs without the underpinning values it simply galvanized their opposition.

Shared-values engagement can have a real impact with those who are skeptical of technology – even those who are unsure why other than it symbolizes “big ag,” which they inherently mistrust.

Connecting with the public to gain broader acceptance of important innovations is within reach. We know from our research that the opportunity exists.

The question is, will agriculture seize it, invest and commit to a long-term, values-based dialogue to earn public trust? Our planet and its people will be better off for it. And that’s something we all can celebrate.

This column was adapted from an article by Terry Fleck, executive director of The U.S. Center for Food Integrity.


Crystal Mackay is the president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity with the vision to help Canada’s food system earn public trust. Visit foodintegrity.ca for more information.

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