There are larger issues driving food trends that should give farmers opportunities to open conversations with people in the food movement. The challenge is starting that conversation.
Jayson Lusk, the head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, told the George Morris AgriFood Policy Lecture on the future of food that influencers are younger, urban, have a higher income and often involved in the food movement.
The lecture was put on by the Department of Food and Agricultural Resource Economics at the University of Guelph with funding from an endowment from the dissolution of the George Morris Centre. Lusk was the keynote speaker and also part of a panel on communicating about the future of food.
Lusk says that there is a growing divergence between eaters and growers, with a decrease from 75 farms per 100 people in the U.S. in 1900 to 6.7 farmers per 100 people in 2010. Add to that that only 7.5 per cent of farmers produce 80 per cent of agricultural output.
“There are a lot of people with less knowledge of where food comes from,” he says.
There are other areas where farmers have little influence, but are important to understanding the complexities of food conversations.
The first is that there’s increasing inequality and divergence in food preferences of the rich and the poor.
“The people influencing the conversations in food and agriculture are eating out of a very different bowl than people affected by food movements.,” says Lusk.
That means while some people pay more for niche foods, including organic and non-GMO, there are others who are just trying to get an appropriate level of food into the mouths of their family. They are motivated by price.
It’s not just the quantity of food that’s the issue, but the quality of food. A higher diversity of diet is related to the healthfulness of a diet.
“Advocating for food systems that are more expensive is not a big deal to higher income people, but it is a much bigger deal to lower income,” says Lusk.
A third larger issue affecting communication with the food movement is diverging population growth in high and low income countries.
As income increases, birth rate decreases, so North America and Europe have stagnant population growth, while other areas of the world continue to have young populations with an increasing overall population.
That falls in with the argument popular in the agriculture world that productivity increases are needed to feed nine billion people on the planet by 2050.
Lusk says he doesn’t argue that there won’t be enough food to feed that many people, but he says it doesn’t resonate in Canada and the United States where population is stagnant.
“If you are producing food that you want people to buy, you might want to think about what this narrative is saying to them,” he says, referring to North American consumers.
“We need to feed the world, but it’s hard for people in relatively rich countries to feel that message,” he says.
“Productivity is the forgotten cornerstone of sustainability.”
Communicating about food and agricultural productivity means appealing to consumer values, which is the direction that Lusk took in his most recent book Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology are Serving up Super Foods to Save the World.
Lusk was joined on a panel by University of Guelph Professors Dr. Mike von Massow and Dr. Iris Joye. They agreed with Lusk on the scale of the challenge when communicating to consumers with little connection to the food system.
“People have a profound disconnect from how we produce food,” says Von Massow. When we want to have a discussion with consumers about how productivity and health can be improved based on a type of technical change, and they are going ‘huh?’ it can be a challenge, he says.
There’s also a lack of trust in experts and academics.
“People aren’t looking to academics for answers, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to communicate more broadly.”
Joye says academia has work to do, especially with the specific language of their expertise. Teaching students with “very big words” and then releasing them to the industry, means there can be communication disconnections, she says.
Oversimplification can also be a challenge, says Joye, as it can create problems when the public isn’t given the whole story.
All three of von Massow, Lusk and Joye agreed that there is opportunity to create more conversations about the food system, as there is so much interest in food.
When Lusk graduated as an agriculture economist, he felt like there were people wondering why he didn’t want to be a “real” economist. That’s no longer the case, as Lusk publishes columns and is a source in major mainstream media.
“People seem to care about what we do. In some ways there’s never been a better time to be an agriculture economist.”