Sharing the sustainability story: What consumers want to know
Sustainability is a major concern among consumers. Food producers are aware of that, but often unsure how to address it.
The notion of sustainable food production is almost shrugged off as common sense among many in agriculture. Ask a grower if they’re sustainable and you’ll likely get an answer like, “Well, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be farming very long.”
Efforts to cut down on food waste, energy use and inputs make economic sense for any grower or food producer. That’s sensible business, but also environmental sustainability. The challenge comes with bridging the communication gap with the consuming public.
It’s not just the public either. Capital lenders, retail chains and restaurants, branded food companies and other major commodity purchasers are demanding it, too.
But what exactly do consumers want to know?
The Center for Food Integrity CEO Charlie Arnot, an expert in that department, recently gave a presentation during Potato Expo 2021. He stressed that it’s important for producers to share their sustainability story to help define sustainable farming. Not doing so invites those outside of food production to do it instead.
Science and data drive farming decisions, and are proof that practices are sustainable. However, when communicating with the public, Arnot said studies show it’s more effective to lead communication efforts with the desire to be more sustainable to establish a common goal with consumers before getting into statistics.
“It starts by simply acknowledging, ‘Like you, we are concerned about preserving our natural resources and protecting our environment,’” Arnot said. “Before you give the how you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s important to give the why.”
The Center for Food Integrity and its research partners conducted an internet study on what topics consumers are talking about in regard to potatoes and sustainability and which topics are most likely to gain focus in the coming years. Their research included more than 465,000 individuals and more than 770,000 topics or meanings that have been linked to potatoes and sustainability during online threads and conversations.
(While this particular study focused on potatoes, Arnot said the data in other studies shows concerns are fairly consistent for other crops and commodities.)
People, ages 25-44, and middle to upper class were the drivers in the conversations. That demographic is consistent with other food-related issues. Arnot said this is important when considering which people to engage with sustainability communication efforts.
“These are people who want to prove they’re making a difference through environmentally responsible actions and choices,” Arnot said. “Part of the strategy could be to help them understand how they are making a difference and how potatoes are making a difference.”
The top five topics identified were:
- Food waste
Food waste is going to become more prevalent in the next couple of years, the research suggests. Consumers are concerned about food waste both in production and consumption. Arnot said producers should focus on showing how every potato is harvested, stored and processed in a way that allows for value to be extracted, whether by consumers or through some sort of byproduct. Consumers worry about food being dumped into landfills, as well as how plant diseases lead to food being discarded.
Also, producers should focus on how packaging is becoming more sustainable. It’s great if the food is grown sustainably, but if it’s packaged in unsustainable material, it’s a negative for many consumers.
- Farmer aid
There is a growing recognition among major food brands and the general public that farmers are at risk and are under great stress. That could play into the building of “shared values,” but Arnot said the topic needs to be carefully approached.
“It can’t be, ‘Leave me alone because I’m a farmer’ or ‘Don’t make me do this because I already have too much to do.’ What it can be is ‘We want to have a partnership. We, in agriculture, recognize we have to be more sustainable and we need your help as society and consumers.”
Arnot said consumers have a negative perception of big “industrial” farms, so it’s important to stress that farmers are individuals.
As farmers, “you have messages that will resonate.” Talk about what’s already been done, as well as other steps you’re planning to take.
“People have an affinity for farmers and they want to know farmers are getting help to be more sustainable,” Arnot said.
- Greenhouse gas emissions
Like the previous point, there is a negative perception of larger “industrial” farms. In this case, the notion is the larger the farm, the more greenhouse gas it’s emitting. While Arnot noted that this isn’t necessarily accurate, it is a perception that larger operations should know they’re dealing with.
The data showed there also is a public perception that root, or “starchy,” vegetables have a worse carbon footprint than grains or other alternatives.
“There is a chance to talk about how you’re producing the food we eat and doing it by using less resources than before,” Arnot said.
Logistics and processing also come into play here, so share how crops and food products are efficiently transported and processed with a keen awareness toward food miles, as well as goals and targets for improvement moving forward.
- Soil degradation
Data shows there is a perception that potatoes take nutrients out of the soil, which will leave the land unusable for future generations. While this assumption isn’t based in fact or science, the perception still exists, which is something food producers have to address. “Regenerative agriculture” is the term people are using to describe what they expect from farmers.
“There is a great opportunity to talk about what you’re doing to regenerate the soil,” Arnot said. “There is so much good work being done to tell stories about, and that will allow you to control the narrative.”
- Water security
The study showed that consumers have directly associated potato farming with water scarcity. Efforts to share stories and data from precision irrigation and other precision agriculture practices can be used to put consumers’ minds at ease.
There also is public concern that potato farming may contribute to eutrophication, which is the enrichment of ponds from runoff that will decrease oxygen. “The impact of farming on both water quantity and quality are issues (farmers) need to be able to address,” Arnot said. “Inform consumers about innovation and how potatoes use water throughout the farming process.
“You should show we’re doing more with less every single year.”
Sustainability demand and price
Price, convenience and taste have long been preeminent driving factors in buying habits and continue to be, Arnot said. The desire to “feel good” about buying a product has become a big factor, but how big a priority and if buyers are willing to pay a premium price hinges on a large variety of factors, including factors like their level of income and if they already associate the brand or product closely with sustainability. Whole Foods, for example, bases much of its marketing on sustainability, which targets those who hold it higher on their priority list and are willing to pay a higher price.
“The thing about consumers is they’re not monolithic,” Arnot said. “There are as many sets of buying habits as there are consumers.”
A more detailed Center for Food Integrity report of the study has been given to the Potato Sustainability Alliance.