On August 26, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss factors contributing to the decreasing public trust in the food sector, implications for agri-food research and innovation, and recommendations to build public trust. The panelists were:
- Dr. Jill E. Hobbs, Professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan
- Mr. John Jamieson, President and CEO, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity
- Dr. Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science and Innovation, Institute on Governance
Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points.
What is the current state of trust in the agri-food sector?
KINDER. Trust is higher than in the US but it’s a mixed bag right now, partly because of the pandemic. Governments put scientists front and centre in their communications with the public. But that highlighted that there’s a general misunderstanding of how science works, as shown in the public not understanding why the signals changed around wearing masks. And the pandemic also gave voice to anti-vaxxers. We see Canadians’ trust reflected in the Adelman Trust Barometer, which shows 83% of trust in scientists compared to only 43% who trust CEOs, business leaders and government. But the latest 3m survey cautions that 58% of respondents think scientists are elitist and 38% think they’re not as ethical as they should be.
HOBBS. The challenge occurs when drilling down to the context. Consumers trust some things but not others so the issue is more nuanced than just “trusting science.” Cultural, economic, social and other values are involved. In our research, we were surprised that 80% of people picked credible sources (Health Canada, traditional media, etc.) and science over consumer blog posts. That’s encouraging. We know there’s more trust of biotech in medicine than in agriculture. Why the difference?
JAMIESON. We saw a marked increase in support for the food system during the pandemic because it was able to pivot and continued to put product on store shelves. But I agree that, when we drill down, consumers are wary. When we look at GMOs and pesticide use, less than 50% of people support these. It’s interesting that we want technology in almost every facet of life—we don’t go to a doctor who uses leaches—but we also don’t recognize technology that creates better animal welfare and affordability. We know that Canadians are concerned with affordability so it’s interesting that they struggle with technologies that enable it. In our interviews of 3,000 Canadians, less than half say agriculture is heading in the right direction. It comes from a lack of knowledge. Ninety percent say they know little or nothing about agriculture. That’s not surprising. As people get farther away from the farm, they know less about processes and practices.
However, squeaky wheels in relation to social media and misinformation are major sources of concern. Social media has allowed everyone to have an opinion, not necessarily based on fact. And because of algorithms, there’s a bias in your social media feed. So if you happen to view something with negative connotations around GMOs, you will continue to see that. As a sector, we see that researchers are second only to farmers as the most trusted source of information, so if we can continue to cite sources, be open and transparent and use social media, we can advance from some pitfalls.
HOBBS. The way we make decisions is heuristics. With availability heuristics, we tend to use information that’s readily available and easy to digest. That’s what social media is about. Social media is not going away so we must engage creatively in terms of how people respond to different types of information.
KINDER. Food is special because it’s essential, so it hits close to home. It’s a dynamic we partake in every day but we don’t understand where it comes from because we’re removed from the farm. Plus, there’s skepticism around disruptive technology. Agri-food is not starting with a clean slate. Examples include rBGH, GMO, glyphosate, mad cow disease. They are not failures of science but of communication and transparency. So we have to deal with those failures.
How has the erosion of trust impacted researchers and consumers?
KINDER. It’s part of a broader concern about the erosion of the social contract. After World War II, society decided to continue funding science in peace time, and provided a certain autonomy in deciding funding and how to spend it. We continue to hear that scientists are in the best position to decide what counts as evidence but the post-trust reality may need a new approach and to rethink the social contract.
HOBBS. An additional dimension is that science must think about how to frame tech. For example, should we have given “food irradiation” a different name? The resemblance of the word to radiation and nuclear accidents freaks people out. Producer groups that fund applied research in agriculture and are a good source of communication play an important role, although their perspective is sometimes too narrow. For scientists, the incentives to communicate with the public aren’t built into the system. Whose role is it to communicate science? Not all consumers are concerned about agricultural technology—but is the vocal minority starting to shift policy?
JAMIESON. It has affected producers and shaken their confidence in what they do. You must be confident to do better. The sector has started to communicate the value of the technology to society, and increased the transparency in the sector. It prompted the industry to do better in terms of communications and framing. Gestation crates have a negative connotation but if you talk about maternity pens, suddenly, they are more acceptable. All of this will advance public trust.
Efforts are being made to increase trust in agri-food. What else could be done?
JAMIESON. The main thing to build trust is to have the industry communicate messages consistently and in unity. Don’t tear other parts of the industry down. The other side is doing the right thing and VERIFYING that you’re doing the right thing. Then communicate that. It sounds simple but it’s not. Being open and transparent does not mean being defensive. We might be scientists or producers but we’re all consumers as well. Communicating values is important because most of us have similar values.
I worked with AquaBounty, the company that has just brought GMO salmon to store shelves after 30 years because they had a difficult time getting the public to accept the benefits. One of the directors said,” We thought we had science on our side and that would be enough.” Of course, it wasn’t. That’s an important story. We’re doing a better job on communications. That’s how we will advance trust.
HOBBS. If there are issues, own your mistakes. There is always collateral damage because issues affect everybody, so work together to communicate better across the supply chain. We don’t always do that. People respond well to stories because they are easy to understand so we must tell stories that resonate with people.
KINDER. Communications with an “s” typically means a one-way broadcast model. Communication with no “s” is a multi-way dialogue. It’s listening as much as talking. Eighty-eight percent of 3M respondents want communication in plain language. Eighty-five percent want more results more often and 80% want them more relatable to everyday life. So we need to avoid the deficit model of communications that assumes the public are empty vessels that need to be filled.
Also, political, legal, cultural and other considerations need to be taken into consideration at the policy-making stage, not just scientific evidence. Science is just part of what goes into a policy decision.
Great wins for science communications in agri-food that won “hearts and minds” include Arctic apples.
What do we do next to avoid the erosion of trust?
KINDER. Bring the public in sooner in the discussion on agri-food. It will be messy but that’s where we need to go.
HOBBS. Nobody has a crystal ball, but keep communications transparent and stay ahead of the issues collectively.
JAMIESON. This is the mandate of the Centre. It boils down to doing the things we’re doing, understanding what people are thinking about, what’s important to them, then working on shared knowledge and shared values. It’s progress rather than perfection. It’s important to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s only been 10-15 years since the system has thought about public trust. We’re getting better all the time.