Aug 2, 2021
Consumers seek information about sustainability

Sustainability is a major topic among consumers. Farmers and other food producers definitely know it.

The notion of sustainable farming is almost shrugged off as common sense among many in agriculture. Ask a farmer if they’re sustainable and you’ll likely get an answer like, “Well, if I wasn’t, I won’t be farming very long.”

While avoiding waste and keeping soil healthy make economic sense for any grower, all of the decisions and changes they’ve made over the years to get better and more efficient are lost on many in the consuming public.

It’s not just the consuming public, either. Capital lenders, branded food companies and other major commodity purchasers are demanding it from farmers too.

But what exactly do consumers want to know?

Center for Food Integrity CEO Charlie Arnot, an expert in that department, recently gave a presentation during Potato Expo 2021. He said it’s important for growers to share their sustainability stories to help define sustainable farming. Not doing so invites the risk of having those who do not understand agriculture do it for them.

While science and data drive farming decisions and also can prove that methods are sustainable, Arnot said when communicating with the public, it’s more effective to build trust by leading with a message of shared values.

Charlie Arnot

“It starts by simply acknowledging, ‘Like you, we are concerned about preserving our natural resources and protecting our environment,’” Arnot said. “Before you give the how you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s important to give the why.”

The Center for Food Integrity and its research partners conducted an internet study on what topics consumers are talking about in regard to potatoes and sustainability and which topics are most likely to gain focus in the coming years. Their research included more than 465,000 individuals and more than 770,000 topics or meanings that have been linked to potatoes and sustainability during online threads and conversations.

(While this particular study focused on potatoes, Arnot said the data in other studies shows concerns are fairly consistent for other crops and commodities.)

People ages 25-44 and middle to upper class were the drivers in the conversations. That demographic is consistent with other food-related issues. Arnot said this is important when considering which people to engage with for sustainability efforts.

“These are people who want to prove they’re making a difference through environmentally responsible actions and choices,” Arnot said. “Part of the strategy could be to help them understand how they are making a difference and how potatoes are making a difference.”

The top five topics identified were:

1. Food waste

The topic of food waste is going to become more prevalent in the next couple of years, researchers predict. Consumers are concerned about food waste both in production and consumption. Producers should focus on showing how every potato is harvested, stored and processed in a way that allows for value to be extracted, whether by consumers or through some sort of byproduct. Consumers worry about food being dumped into landfills, as well as how diseases lead to food being discarded. Also, producers should focus on how packaging is becoming more sustainable.

2. Farmer aid

There is a growing recognition among major food brands and the general public that farmers are at risk, and it is a stressful situation. That could play into the building of “shared values,” Arnot said, but it’s very important how that situation is approached.

“It can’t be ‘leave me alone because I’m a farmer’ or ‘don’t make me do this because I already have too much to do.’ What it can be is, ‘We want to have a partnership. We, in agriculture, recognize we have to be more sustainable, and we need your help as society and consumers.’”

Arnot said consumers have a negative perception of big “industrial” farms, so it’s important to stress that farmers are individuals, as well as exactly what they’re doing to be more sustainable. As farmers, “you have messages that will resonate.” Talk about what’s already been done, as well as other steps you’re planning to take.

“People have an affinity for farmers, and they want to know farmers are getting help to be more sustainable,” Arnot said.

3. Greenhouse gas emissions

Like the previous point, there is a negative perception of large “industrial” farms, but in this case, it’s that the bigger the operation, the more greenhouse gas it emits. The data showed there also is a public perception that root, or “starchy,” vegetables have a worse carbon footprint than grains or other alternatives.

“There is an opportunity to talk about what potatoes do and potato farming does to enhance the soil,” Arnot said. “There is a chance to talk about how you’re producing the food we eat and doing it by using less resources than before.”

Logistics and processing also come into play here, so share how crops are efficiently transported and processed with a keen awareness toward food miles, as well as goals and targets for improvement moving forward.

4. Soil degradation

There is a consumer perception that potatoes take nutrients out of the soil, which will leave the land unusable for future generations. While this assumption isn’t based in fact or science, the perception still exists, which is something food producers have to address.

“There is a great opportunity to talk about what you’re doing to regenerate the soil,” Arnot said. “Regenerative agriculture” is the term people are using when they talk about what they expect from agriculture. “There is so much good work being done to tell stories about, and that will allow you to control the narrative.”

5. Water security

Consumers are directly associating potato farming with water scarcity. Efforts to share stories and data from precision irrigation and other precision agriculture practices can be used to put consumers’ minds at ease.

There also is public concern that potato farming may contribute to eutrophication, which is the enrichment of ponds from runoff that will decrease oxygen.

“The impact of farming on both water quantity and quality are issues (farmers) need to be able to address,” Arnot said. “Inform consumers about innovation and how potatoes use water throughout the farming process. You should show we’re doing more with less every single year.”

Price, convenience and taste have long been preeminent driving factors in buying habits and continue to be, Arnot said. The desire to “feel good” about buying a product has become a big factor, but how big of a priority and if consumers are willing to pay a premium hinges on a large variety of factors, including the level of disposable income and if they associate the brand closely with sustainability, like Whole Foods, for example.

“The thing about consumers is they’re monolithic,” Arnot said. “There are as many sets of buying habits as there are consumers.”

A more detailed Center for Food Integrity report of the study has been given to the Potato Sustainability Alliance.

— Zeke Jennings, VGN correspondent

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