January 26, 2015

Insight from Daren Coppock on bringing truth into a consumer market misled by one-sided activism and riddled with confusion about GMOs and organic vs. conventional farming practices

By Nancy Appelquist, Director of Operations, Entira

At the 2014 AgGateway Annual Conference in November, I had the opportunity to visit with Daren Coppock, president and CEO of Ag Retailers Association, and gain insight from him on front-burner issues facing the agriculture industry today. A good portion of our conversation centered on the headwinds the industry is facing from food activists and others who are injecting fear and misconception into the market.  We’ve all seen the segment where people at a farmer’s market admit to Jimmy Kimmel, “I don’t know what a GMO is, but I know it’s bad.”

I appreciated hearing Daren’s point of view on this subject. What it boils down to is that people are influenced by questionable marketing tactics because they don’t know the other side of the story. It’s our job to present that other side.

Here is some of our conversation:

Nancy: Let’s talk about the PR problem we seem to be having in agriculture these days. People are becoming more and more vocal about their food, yet many of the most vocal—the ones who are out there making startling claims and stirring up emotions about food—are so far removed from agriculture they don't understand the whole picture. But people listen to them and form perceptions and purchasing decisions accordingly. So, how do we regain control of the message so consumers take queues about their food choices from those who know what  really goes into producing the food we consume. 

Daren: This is a very frustrating problem for the whole industry. Most of us are wired from a logical, data-driven, scientific point of view. So when farmers and ag/food companies are doing all the right things by these measures, why are people doubting what we’re up to? The people and groups on the other side aren’t making scientific, rational arguments—they’re making philosophical and emotional arguments. For those of us who have been in the industry for a long time, it’s a tough transition to engage in that framework. But that’s what we’ve got to do in order to get somewhere.

Transparency is a big part of it—letting people see what we’re doing, inviting them to our farms and operations to show them what we’re doing. Our certification programs like ResponsibleAg are examples of initiatives that will support more transparency. We can show exactly what is being done to make sure people are complying with regulations. All those kinds of things will help.

We also need to be a little more intentional about educating people about modern agriculture and the science behind it, but in a way that can be conveyed emotionally. People need to understand that we’re faced with a challenge of doubling food production in the next 40 years to feed all the people that are supposed to be on the planet by then. Using a modern ag approach increases our productivity using existing land and existing water—because we’re never going to have more of either one of those. That’s one way to get there.

The alternative view, of course, is that we all go back to organic. With that approach we have at least a 25 percent yield drag, we need significantly more labor, inputs and land, and lots of other variables that complicate that equation. Is that the answer to feed all those people? No—it can’t be done this way and some will go hungry if we try. We have to look at the likely outcome for each path. Which outcome do we like better?

Nancy: We all want what’s best for the planet, and we want to feed the population on it, but so many people don’t have all the pieces to the equation. You can buy everything organic because you think it’s better for your family and for the environment, but with the resources we have and the population we have to feed, that’s not an equation you can balance. We need to help people understand that there are tradeoffs.

Daren: Organic is a preference. People want it because they want it. They think it’s better for them, although there’s no data to support that. They think it’s better for the environment, but there’s no data to support that either. They are just preferences. One of the strengths of our system is that if the customer wants something, they can get it. If someone prefers to buy produce with an organic label, they can go to the supermarket and buy it. But yes, there are tradeoffs. We need to better demonstrate what those tradeoffs are.

Nancy: I recently talked to a local apple orchard, and they said they tried to maintain a section of the orchard using organic methods, but nobody wanted to buy the apples because they had holes, and they looked bad compared to their conventionally produced counterparts. So to stay in business, they ended up abandoning those practices. And guess what—they still produce beautiful, healthy apples for the local consumers to enjoy.

So, we’ve got a segment of the population that likes to buy organic, but there’s another, perhaps even bigger growing trend to buy local. People want to support their local growers. That’s something I can get behind! 

Daren: The efficiency analysis of the whole local vs. larger production comes down to factors like this: On one side you have somebody taking a small truckload of squash to the farmers market every weekend, and on the other side you have a big semi taking a load to the supermarket several times a week. Which one of those approaches feeds more people most efficiently with the lowest carbon footprint? It’s the large-scale option. Local also doesn’t work well if you’re in upstate New York and want bananas or grapes.

Nancy: When it comes down to it, people who want it will buy local to the extent they can, but I think most would agree they still want their bananas.

Daren: Exactly.

Voices of Reason

Nancy: The urgency to tell the complete story about agriculture often becomes apparent when I’m having lunch with friends. Many of my friends have very strong opinions about food, but they have no grasp on how farming and the agricultural supply chain really works. I fight the good fight, but it’s always an uphill battle. Clearly, we need to do our part to help them understand how food production works. Inform those around us about what some of the tradeoffs are if you disrupt this system that has been built for generation upon generation, and that farmers, retailers, everybody in this business all want what’s best for our children. We want to be able to supply the world with the food people need to survive. 

Daren: And we don’t want to pass contaminated farmland on to our kids.

Nancy: So I guess it comes back to what you said earlier about transparency. In today's digital age there's just so much information accessible to everyone, which means we have informed eaters making choices about what they eat based on what they believe to be true. There's so much information and so many choices available, but no good way to filter what's true and what's not. We must inject positive, factual information into the mainstream media conversation, and we have to make sure our story is loud and clear so it’s truly understood. It’s our job to make sure our story is heard.

Daren: Engagement with associations is important—and not just ours. Answer the call in talking to your local people about the issues—talk to your Kiwanis clubs, your school boards, everyone you can about what you do. Invite them to come and see your operation. Let people come and see what modern agricultural production is all about.

****

You can read the first part of my interview with Daren Coppock in last month’s article, “Heading Back Down to Earth.”

At Entira, we look at the entire picture to bring you a realistic and comprehensive view of your business. As an unbiased, outside perspective, we can make practical recommendations based on existing facts, market conditions, and perceptions. Contact us if you’d like to learn more, or email me directly at nappelquist@entira.net.