Commentary: Research outlines how to discuss complex issues

Issue Date: January 21, 2015
By Charlie Arnot
Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity discusses the center’s survey of consumer attitudes during a workshop at the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in San Diego.

(Editor's note: Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Missouri-based Center for Food Integrity, discussed consumer perceptions during a workshop at the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in San Diego. Following are excerpts of his remarks.)

Every year, we survey about 2,005 U.S. consumers, but this year we had a special focus in segmenting on moms, millennials and foodies, to focus on those individual groups that have expressed a greater interest in food today, those who are kind of driving the conversation about food and agricultural issues.

Women, generally and historically in the years that we've done this, are more concerned about most issues than men, particularly when it comes to food issues. Early adopters—those consumers who have a broader social circle, tend to have higher incomes and higher education levels—they're more concerned than later adopters.

When we break it down and begin to look at moms, millennials and foodies, there's some really good news for agriculture about how we can think about engaging and talking about our messages.

Here's the good news: Keeping healthy food affordable is a high concern for every single segment.

What do we do in today's agriculture? Everything you do is committed to keeping healthy food affordable. When we talk about the technology you use, about the systems you implement today, about producing more with fewer resources, all of that can be talked about in the context of keeping healthy food affordable.

What do we do when science and consumers collide? We're frustrated by that in agriculture and consistently have been for years. We're always frustrated that science alone is not definitive in building public support for who we are and what we do.

That's because "can" and "should" aren't the same question. "Can" is a question about competency; "should" is a question about values and ethics. Science will tell us if we can, but society will tell us whether or not we should. We're really good at answering the "can" question. We need to get a lot better at answering the "should" question, because that's where the debate is taking place today.

If we give people information about science and economics, we increase their knowledge but we may do very little to influence how they feel or what they believe, and people are more likely to make decisions on how they feel and what they believe than on simply what they know. That's why educating the public is important, but it's not sufficient.

Online communication was supposed to connect us, but it's actually made us much more tribal and much more insular. We used to have this kind of broad, social conversation about food, about all issues. When I was growing up in rural Nebraska, we only got ABC, NBC and CBS. But today, the choice of channels and information sources is infinite. We've really regressed to a tribal communication model, where I'm only going to communicate with those who share my interests.

There's a bad-news bias. Research done at Ohio State University was able to show that a single item of negative information is capable of neutralizing five similar pieces of positive information. Our survival instinct causes us to be extra cautious when we hear negative information. So we have to be out there and be more engaged, because it's going to take us five times to recover from every piece of negative information that others are seeing.

There's also the "big is bad" bias. People think the bigger you are, the more likely you are to put profit ahead of public interest.

Our goal should not be to win a scientific or social argument but to find better ways to introduce science and technology that encourage informed choice. My bias is: If you give people the tools to make informed choices, they'll make choices that support today's agriculture, because today's agriculture does benefit the environment, it does benefit consumers. But we have to have the type of conversation that helps people understand that and appreciate it in a way that's relevant to them.

If you have to go and think about, "I have to build a message around a complex issue that I'm not quite sure how to communicate," use these five elements as a place to start:

  • Accurate presentation of risks: Acknowledge there are risks, and talk about them in a way that you can present both sides accurately.
  • Be open and transparent: Nothing is going to be more important to us in the next 10 years than increasing transparency. I honestly believe that transparency has the potential to be as important as sustainability has been, as we think about where we're going.
  • Have a unifying message that talks about the deeper drivers of human behavior, and connect based on values.
  • Demonstrate there is appropriate government control.
  • Engage and participate in the process. Listen; acknowledge you're heard feedback; explain how and why you've made decisions.

Those things can go a long way in helping to make your issues more trusted, when you talk about the challenging issues we face in agriculture.

(For more information about the Center for Food Integrity, visit

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.