|‘Food Politics’ Requires Strategic Response|
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economy may be sparking considerable debate in the current election year, but one observer firmly believes those subjects rank behind what he sees as the most political issue in our nation today.
And what is that issue? Food, according to Kevin Murphy, founder and owner of Food Chain Communications, LLC, a company launched to help those involved in the food chain to communicate more effectively in the modern food system.
"There’s currently no issue more political than food," Murphy said. "You’ll find more news, books, films and documentaries on food-related topics than on the war in Iraq or anything else."
One of the most common themes in this news coverage involves the ethics of food production, targeting modern farming and food production practices, as well as the farmer. In that milieu, terms like animal rights, factory farms, hormones, genetically-modified organisms, agroterrorism, pesticides, organically grown and obesity have become commonplace, even if their actual meanings are not always clear to every consumer.
"I’m going to be presenting some deeply disturbing information today," Murphy told an agribusiness group at a recent meeting. "Agriculture is under attack and it’s an unrelenting one. My hope is you’ll be disturbed enough by what I say you won’t go back home or to your office and do what you always do."
At a time when U.S. agriculture continues to provide the safest, most abundant and most economical food supply in the world, its critics not only are increasing in number, they are becoming more savvy in how to capture the public’s attention and how to present their case, Murphy warned.
"Radical ideology and terms like animal rights don’t resonate well with most consumers," he said, "but activist groups are mastering approaches that do work."
As a result, food industry critics now are presenting their arguments on grounds of morality, ethics and even religion, an approach capturing attention and swaying attitudes. As an example, Murphy noted one well-known activist is saying compassion for farm animals is the great moral calling of our time.
How do agriculture and the food industry in general tend to answer such attacks? Murphy said most of the time the strategy is to:
• Ignore the criticisms or respond so much later the primary result is to remind consumers of what they may have forgotten or never saw or heard in the first place.
• Scoff at and ridicule the criticism.
• Boycott the group and/or its supporters.
• Outlaw it with legislative efforts that don’t stand a chance of passage.
• "Science-ize it," i.e., using scientific facts and figures to justify agricultural and food industry practices. Such an approach tends to fall flat with most consumers, Murphy noted.
Agriculture can and must do better if the industry is to avoid being constantly on the defensive, he asserted. "Speaking past each other"–using arguments and verbiage with which people don’t easily identify–won’t win the battle. Instead, stakeholders in the food system must invest the time and effort into knowing and understanding their critics as well as they know and understand their industry, Murphy said.
In addition, rather than simply using science and economics to appeal to reason, agribusiness also must effectively frame its own moral arguments and appeal to consumer emotion, Murphy believes.
If agribusiness fails to take on the challenge of winning the race to the high moral ground, Murphy predicts the industry will find itself in a perpetual response (defensive) mode in which continual appeasement and compromise will be the likely outcome.
"The food industry must be able to formulate and present a moral rationale for what it does," Murphy stated.
At the same time, it’s important the industry’s approach be believable, credible and intellectually grounded.