The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

How To Communicate Science So It Makes Sense

How To Communicate Science So It Makes Sense

The Food Journal

May 14, 2015

Over the years, science and technology have provided countless benefits to food and agriculture. Thanks to the work of scientists, plant and animal geneticists and farmers, we have been able to develop drought- and blight-resistant crops, and leaner, healthier meats. Many fruits and vegetables that have become staples at our tables – including corn and eggplant – were improved using science to become the varieties we recognize today. And food technology may be the answer to fighting diseases that threaten popular fruits like oranges and bananas. Yet, many still distrust the messages that they hear about the benefits of applying science to our food system.

“Our challenge in the food industry is not better technology; we have the best technology available. The challenge is finding effective ways to help the public become comfortable with science and technical information. If we can do that, we can build trust and support for an informed public evaluation about today’s food system,” says Roxi Beck, director of The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). (See our full interview with Beck here.)   

To get to the bottom of this disconnect, CFI took a look at how some specific, much-talked about issues, like genetically modified ingredients in food and antibiotic use in animal agriculture, were perceived by 2,005 respondents who reflect the general U.S. consumer population. They further segmented the respondents into three groups of special interest: Moms, Millennials and Foodies. Their findings suggest that simply giving consumers more information about science and its benefits is not enough to build consumer trust. What is needed, says CFI, is a complete reframing of the conversation so that it focuses on issues that matter most to consumers and on building trust. 

For example, says Beck, those in the food industry know that global population is forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. CFI’s research shows that only 25 percent of consumers believe that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide food for the rest of the world. In fact, some consumers simply don’t believe the need exists at all. Yet, “We’re feeding the world” is a mantra often used by those involved in farming and food to build support for modern food production systems.

“There’s no doubt that feeding the nine billion will require technology and innovation that enables farmers to raise more animals for food and grow stronger, more abundant crops on the land already in production. Building support for food production on that scale will require those in agriculture and food production to make what they do relevant to consumers. But there’s little value in talking about feeding a global population if consumers don’t believe that need exists. If those in the food system miss the mark on what’s important to consumers, there won’t ever be permission granted to discuss what’s important to those who work in the food system,” says Beck.

Lisa Watson, Principal at Watson Green LLC says, “‘Feeding the world’ is a nice aspirational message, but it has become overused, and many view it as a catch-all to an ‘ends justifies the means’ approach toward agriculture. It’s not that the public is opposed to people around the world having enough food. But they don’t want to give anything up (real or perceived) to make that happen. And for average consumers who walk into a grocery store surrounded by pricy, high-end food items and who receive individual portions at restaurants that would serve a family of four, it takes some work to make the concept resonate. That’s unfortunate.”

Beck says that the first step in building bridges with consumers is to listen without judgment – to really understand the passion and fear that drives consumer skepticism around food issues. The second step is to ensure food producers are asking questions and honestly taking note, looking at food system practices with a critical eye and making adjustments when expectations are out of alignment with consumer expectations. If those in the industry genuinely engage consumers for input and feedback, then conversations about all food topics and issues should be possible, she says.

But there are still barriers to overcome, even when the conversation makes sense. Consumers undergo a very complex decision-making process when trying to wade through all the complicated, controversial issues they are presented with. For example, people favor information that confirms their existing beliefs (something called “confirmation bias”). Also, social media has created areas of interest where people can find others whose values and interests align with their own (known as “tribal communication”). Another barrier, known as “cultural cognition,” involves people conforming their beliefs to group values that define their cultural identities. Breaking down these barriers is critical to fostering informed decision-making.

“If we don’t make science relevant to consumers, it all becomes background noise – they simply won’t hear it,” says Watson.

So what does matter most to consumers? The most important thing concerning consumers is whether the industry is worthy of trust. Thus, what matters to consumers is values, says Beck. Consumers want to know that people who share their values are making decisions about the food they serve to their families.

As for a specific issue, CFI research shows that what’s most important to today’s consumer is having access to healthy, affordable food. That’s been the top concern for the past two years. The great news, says Beck, is many of today’s food production practices help keep healthy food more affordable. So instead of talking about feeding the world, farmers and food producers should be talking about what they are doing to help keep healthy food affordable.

“Consider advances in genetics in pork production. Instead of talking about increased productivity, talk about how that technology makes pork leaner and more available. Or share with them how modern farming innovations like genetically modified seed and indoor animal handling systems allow farmers to produce safe food using fewer resources, with the added benefit of holding down costs. It’s important those in the food system deliver the benefits to consumers to build support for today’s food production,” says Beck.  

While reframing the conversation is important, it turns out that it is equally important to choose the right person to conduct the conversation. CFI found that the “Mom Scientist” – a mother with scientific education and/or work experience – was the most trusted source of information, and more trusted than information coming from Federal Government Scientists and their Peers. In fact, as respondents were exposed to more information from the three different voices, trust in mom scientist remained strong and the trust scores rose consistently for government scientist. The peer voice ultimately dropped to the least-trusted source of information in most scenarios, which suggests that while respondents trust their peers based on the fact that they share values, they look to experts on technical issues. Once shared values have been established, having technical expertise and a credential builds credibility and belief when communicating technical information.

“This finding validates and reinforces concepts that Vince Covello and others preached two decades ago – that women generally are more effective opening the door in ‘high risk/low trust’ situations because they do a better job conveying empathy. And when these same individuals have technical credentials, it can be a home run in terms of how they are perceived and their ability to be heard. Again, it’s always dangerous to over generalize about topics like gender. But to the extent that we can facilitate more proactive communications through individuals who connect with others on both emotional and technical levels, we should be able to make a positive difference,” says Watson.

Beck adds, “We hope our research empowers all scientists, mom scientists in particular, to become actively involved in advocacy – whether that’s through one-on-one conversations, social media engagement, media interviews or presentations. The public clearly finds mom scientists credible and they can have a very powerful voice in building trust for modern food production,” says Beck. 

Ultimately, says Beck, building trusting relationships with consumers is about making what you’re doing relevant to them and helping them understand that you share their values when it comes to important issues like animal care, the environment and providing healthy, affordable food.

“Helping consumers understand there’s value in what’s important to them goes a long way toward building trust,” she says.

Science Denial and Today’s Food Consumer

New CFI Research Cracks the Code to Informed Decision Making
Interview with Roxi Beck, Director, The Center for Food Integrity

What was the genesis of this research?

The public is intensely divided on issues that scientists believe shouldn’t be issues at all. For example, overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that genetically modified foods are safe, yet the debate rages on.  

Our challenge in the food industry is not better technology; we have the best technology available. The challenge is finding effective ways to help the public become comfortable with science and technical information. If we can do that, we can build trust and support for an informed public evaluation about today’s food system.    

That’s what our 2014 consumer survey examined – how best to introduce science and technology so it’s considered when consumers make decisions about food. In addition, we wanted to better understand the attitudes of some important influencers when it comes to food issues: moms, millennials and foodies, and also early adopters who are opinion leaders that actively seek and share information, and whom others look to for guidance. 

The research provides a model for introducing and discussing complex, controversial issues. It’s a model that can be applied when communicating and engaging with consumers about topics that are critical to our ability to meet the growing demand for food while preserving and protecting our natural resources.

Why is it important to reframe the conversation so that it focuses on issues that matter most to consumers? 

You know that old Roosevelt quote, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” Not paying attention to this philosophy could be one reason the food industry faces the challenges it does. We’ve been so focused on communicating what’s important to the industry that we’ve forgotten to stop and clarify the very real concerns that exist for consumers – and importantly – what drives those concerns. 

For example, those in the food industry know that global population is forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. Our research shows that only 25 percent of consumers believe that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide food for the rest of the world. In fact, some consumers simply don’t believe the need exists at all. Yet, “We’re feeding the world” is a mantra often used by those involved in farming and food to build support for modern food production systems.

There’s no doubt that feeding the nine billion will require technology and innovation that enables farmers to raise more animals for food and grow stronger, more abundant crops on the land already in production. Building support for food production on that scale will require those in agriculture and food production to make what they do relevant to consumers. 

But there’s little value in talking about feeding a global population if consumers don’t believe that need exists. Think about it from the U.S. consumers’ perspective. Our grocery store shelves are never empty, our produce section enjoys a bounty of varied fruits and vegetables year-round, and we have an obesity epidemic. It’s hard for the public to imagine real hunger when we’re rarely faced with it at a scale that results in widespread famine. Yet, it’s very real for millions around the globe.

If those in the food system miss the mark on what’s important to consumers, there won’t ever be permission granted to discuss what’s important to those who work in the food system. If the public doesn’t believe people in the food system are interested in hearing concerns, the information and understanding from those in the food system will fall on deaf ears. 

Those involved in bringing food to the masses have to stop trying to prove a point. They have to stop trying to correct misinformation and convince the activists that they’re wrong. The first step is to listen without judgment – to really understand the passion and fear that drives consumer skepticism around food issues. The second step is to ensure food producers are asking questions and honestly taking note, looking at food system practices with a critical eye and making adjustments when expectations are out of alignment with consumer expectations. If those in the industry genuinely engage consumers for input and feedback, then conversations about all food topics and issues should be possible. 

What issues DO matter most to consumers? What resonates most?

Before we focus on issues, let’s spend a second on something more important than any one issue. The most important thing concerning consumers is whether the industry is worthy of trust. Thus, what matters to consumers is values. Consumers want to know that people who share their values are making decisions about the food they serve to their families.

As for a specific issue, our research shows that what’s most important is having access to healthy, affordable food. That’s been the top concern for the past two years. We have to be focused first and foremost on what we can all agree on – the fact that we believe everyone should have access to food that’s nutritious and affordable, on a consistent basis. Then the industry can talk about solutions to make that outcome a reality.

Why is it so important to reframe the conversation with the right source conducting the conversation?

Certainly, having diverse voices is beneficial but our research shows that consumers trust certain sources more than others when it comes to scientific and technical issues. 

In our study, we selected two issues as stimulus for respondents: genetically modified ingredients in food and antibiotic use in animal agriculture.  

We tested messaging about those two issues from three different “voices”: mom scientist (a mother with scientific educational and/or work experience), federal government scientist, and a peer “who shares my interest about food.”

The data shows mom scientist was the most trusted source of information before respondents read any stimulus information. 

As respondents were exposed to more information from the three different voices, trust in mom scientist remained strong and the trust scores rose consistently for government scientist. The peer voice ultimately dropped to the least-trusted source of information in most scenarios, which shows us that while respondents trust their peers based on the fact that they share values, they look to experts on technical issues. Once shared values have been established, having technical expertise and a credential builds credibility and belief when communicating technical information.

We hope our research empowers all scientists, mom scientists in particular, to become actively involved in advocacy – whether that’s through one-on-one conversations, social media engagement, media interviews or presentations. The public clearly finds mom scientists credible and they can have a very powerful voice in building trust for modern food production. 

We’ve been framing the conversation in a way that highlights technology’s ability to produce more with less and “feed the world.” Why do you think this message isn’t resonating with consumers? 

Consumers don’t believe the U.S. has the responsibility to provide food for the rest of the world. That may seem a bit shocking at first, but in fact it’s a pivotal finding that can help change the conversation to more effectively connect with consumers and build support for modern food production.       

Our research shows the top concern for consumers is having access to healthy, affordable food. The great news is many of today’s food production practices help keep healthy food more affordable. So instead of talking about feeding the world, talk about what you’re doing is helping to keep healthy food affordable.

Consider advances in genetics in pork production. Instead of talking about increased productivity, talk about how that technology makes pork leaner and more available. 

Or share with them how modern farming innovations like genetically modified seed and indoor animal handling systems allow farmers to produce safe food using fewer resources, with the added benefit of holding down costs.

It’s important those in the food system deliver the benefits to consumers to build support for today’s food production.  

Building trusting relationships with consumers is about making what you’re doing relevant to them and helping them understand that you share their values when it comes to important issues like animal care, the environment and providing healthy, affordable food. 

Our peer-reviewed and published trust model tells us that communicating with shared values is three-to-five times more important in building consumer trust, than simply providing information.

Helping consumers understand there’s value in what’s important to them goes a long way toward building trust.