Opinion: Agriculture needs a social contract with consumers

A conversation with consumers should be a reality for many agriculture markets

I had several interactions recently that raised the issue of trust or social licence for agriculture to me again. 

I continue to be struck by the fact that many in agriculture think that if we just tell the public how good we are, they will trust and like us and give us the “licence,” or approval, to proceed.

I believe the truth is more likely that we have to come to an agreement on a set of acceptable practices for food production, which will involve compromise on both sides. 

I so often hear farmers say they don’t want consumers telling them how to farm. That is fair. But what I think we are also hearing is that consumers don’t want farmers to tell them how to eat. 

I remember a story in which Henry Ford is quoted saying that Model T customers could have any colour they wanted, so long as it was black. Henry Ford was focused on the efficiency of the production line and didn’t want to compromise on that. 

It seems to me that farmers are doing the same thing to consumers today, in a time where consumers have more and more choice. Can you imagine a car company today saying you could only have a black car — or having no choices of options for that matter? They simply wouldn’t succeed.

The best approach (and those that know me know I’ve been saying this for a long time) is to enter a conversation with consumers and to develop an agreement, a social contract, on what is acceptable to both sides of the transaction. 

There may be different contracts for different market segments and supply chains built around those specific production practices. This could even be positive for producers because it will anchor those supply chains and cement those relationships. 

In those circumstances it will be more difficult for consumers or processors to switch for a few pennies (the reality of today’s commodity market).

There will be those who say I am dreaming. They will say that consumers should just suck it up, look at the science (if the attribute is science related), and take what they get. My fear, however, is that consumers will say “no thank you” in some circumstances. 

We’ve done work at the University of Guelph in which we found that as consumers learned about gestation crates for sows (something that is being phased out) they had a negative valuation for those products. 

That means you would have to pay them to eat it. Producers need to decide if they want to produce something that consumers will actually buy.

There are those that will come back with “but we just need to educate them about what we do and why we do it.” In some cases that is true. 

In a recent piece of work with two graduate students (and my colleague John Cranfield who was also involved in the gestation crate work above) we found that when consumers understood the use of antibiotics and the fact that there was regulation, chicken and beef produced with responsible antibiotic use was almost as appealing as that raised without. And both were more appealing than conventionally produced product. 

Clearly education will help but in this circumstance, there remain some consumers who simply will only buy the raised without antibiotic product.

That’s OK. I also recently read of some work at the University of British Columbia in which they asked consumers their attitudes about some practices related to dairy production. 

They then explained dairy production to them in more detail and for some things the perceptions worsened. In that case education didn’t help.

The truth is we need to engage with consumers and have a discussion about what is happening. We need to provide an increasingly diverse set of consumers with the types of products they want. We can’t just offer black Model Ts and expect to keep all consumers happy. 

If both sides compromise and come to an agreement, a social contract, we will stabilize supply chains, improve predictability, improve returns, and maintain consumers.

If we choose not to, consumers will find someone who will give them what they want. It’s the reality of markets.

To me the choice is clear.

This first appeared at foodfocusguelph.ca.

Mike von Massow, Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph.

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