Charlie Arnot: Building consumer trust in today’s food system
Walk down the aisles in the grocery store, and the food options are endless for today’s consumers. Conventional, organic, natural, grass-fed and grain-fed beef are among the many beef options offered in the meat case for shoppers to choose from. From these choices, consumers can make decisions based on nutritional benefits, taste preferences and even ethical values. These choices are a direct result of consumers demanding more from their farmers and ranchers.
Charlie Arnot, CEO and founder of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) and president of CMA Consulting, helps producers understand what consumers expect from today’s farmers and ranchers, while illustrating how the industry can help build public trust and support between consumers and producers.
CFI has a mission to build consumer trust and confidence in contemporary U.S. food systems by sharing accurate and balanced information. Arnot asked those in attendance at the South Dakota Food Chain Roundtable held on Nov. 17, 2010 to join in that mission and help spread the positive messages about American agriculture with the public.
“There is a heightened public interest in food, with less reliable information out there,” said Arnot. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which segment of the industry you are a part of, it will be important to protect our freedom to operate.”
Arnot explained that a producer’s freedom to operate is granted through a social license, which he said is, “the privilege of operating a business with minimal formalized restrictions, such as legislation or regulation – based on maintaining public trust by doing what’s right.”
“Food system stakeholders need to be proactive in doing what’s right and maintaining that social license and freedom to operate,” advised Arnot. “This means gaining certifications to ensure consumer confidence. If we aren’t proactive, we will reach a tipping point where social control takes place.”
He said that instead of having the freedom to operate based on shared ethics, values, expectations and self-regulation, farmers and ranchers will face increased social control with more regulations, legislation, litigation and compliance measures.
“When we share a social license with our consumers, we enjoy the low-cost, flexible and responsive environment in food production,” said Arnot. “But, when ethics and expectations change, we reach that tipping point, and our freedom to operate is hindered by rigid bureaucracy and higher costs.”
Some would suggest agriculture simply roll back the clock; yet, is this the ethical choice? According to Arnot, compared to 1950 production numbers, farmers produce 176 percent more pork per sow with 44 percent fewer sows. Looking at corn in the 1950s, producers today grow 333 percent more corn on a mere 11 percent more acres. Dairy producers raise 63 percent more milk with 58 percent fewer cows.
“It’s truly remarkable how much food we can produce today using fewer resources – less corn, less land and less manure than ever before,” remarked Arnot. “If we went back to 1950s production methods with today’s two million farmers, we would only feed enough people to cover the populations of Texas and California. The other 48 states would go hungry. Yet, the public has the right to expect farms to do what is right.”
Arnot added that even with today’s high production numbers, 14.6 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2008, and he stressed that, “Clearly this is something we need to address, especially considering that today’s consumers spend less than 10 percent of their income on food. In 1908, Americans spent more than 50 percent of their income on food.”
By mid-century, the population will have increased by three billion people. “That’s like adding a new Philadelphia every week,” he noted.
“We need to double food production in the next 40 years,” said Arnot. “These people expect to eat, and they need to. Intensive agriculture is sustainable agriculture. We need to produce twice as many calories on the same amount of land.”
To close his presentation, Arnot offered three suggestions those in attendance at the roundtable can do to help the food security issue.
First, plant a garden and support food choices. “Urban gardens can help consumers make a connection and understand where their food comes from,” he said.
Second, learn more about food and understand the consequences of policy and market decisions. “If we don’t allow farmers to continue to produce more while using less, people will go hungry,” he added.
The third and final suggestion was for consumers and producers to support responsible food production systems of all kinds. “It’s the ethical choice for people, animals and the planet,” he closed.
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