Gap between consumers and producers grows wider and deeper

Cultural polarization expands a giant gap of understanding between agricultural producers and consumers.Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of BEEF Vet articles exploring the need for the cattle and beef industries to engage in public discourse with consumers in the name of preserving social license, and effective ways veterinarians and their clients can go about it. Read the first part here.

Wes Ishmael

August 20, 2015

10 Min Read
Gap between consumers and producers grows wider and deeper

"American agriculture is in a reactive position for the first time in human history,” says Aubrey Bettencourt, California Water Alliance executive director. “For the first time, agricultural producers have to explain their role in society and why it’s important. For the first time, they must justify what they do.”

Bettencourt was sharing insight at the most recent annual meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), which focused on water and the future of animal agriculture.

Only about 1 percent of U.S. citizens are actively engaged in production agriculture, compared to about 50 percent at the beginning of the last century. Most consumers today are at least several generations removed from agriculture.

Bettencourt explains the relationship between the reactive agrarian minority and the consumer majority increasingly determines policy outcomes.

Logic suggests this shift away from an agrarian majority to a consumer one is at heart of most of the divisive, contentious debates between producers and the public.

But, there’s more than cultural drift and generational distance cleaving the continent-sized value gap between producers and consumers.

When humans change how they do things or alter their historic relationships, ensuing ripples ultimately change public perceptions.

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Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., distinguished professor and university bioethicist at Colorado State University, offered a sterling example in the first part of this series.”

Rollin connected the dots between radical changes in animal use during the past half-century—less husbandry and more industrial—and the explosion of societal interest in protecting animals.

“People in society are seeking to build fences around animals to protect the animals and their interests from being totally submerged for the sake of the general welfare of humans, and they’re trying to accomplish this through the law,” Rollin explained.

In the case of water and natural resources, access to and availability of resources previously considered finite in theory are driving consumers to seek a definition and barometer for sustainability. For the first time in the U.S., discussions are springing up about how much of particular resources should be used by which interest group and for what purposes.

Closer to home, when the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) was established this spring, Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, vice president of Cargill Value Added Meats (interim USRSB chair) explained, “Research tells us American consumers are increasingly interested in the social, economic and environmental impacts of the beef they purchase.

“For the first time, the entire U.S. beef value chain, including representatives who raise cattle and produce, market and sell beef, in addition to representatives from the NGO [non-governmental organization] community and allied businesses, are coming together to establish metrics and criteria that will be used to benchmark the present and help measure improvements in the sustainability of American beef going forward.”

You're more than wrong

Moreover, the division between the agrarian minority and the consumer majority is being cleaved wider and amplified by increased ideological polarization across society in general.

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines (and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive) than at any point in the last two decades,” according to a study last year by the Pew Research Center (PRC, not to be confused with the Pew Charitable Trusts).

According to the PRC study, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” the proportion of Americans who consistently express conservative or liberal opinions has more than doubled in the past 20 years—from 10 percent to 21 percent. So, the ideological overlap between the two is diminished.

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Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies, “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

Bottom line, 27 percent of Democrats in the survey see the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being; 36 percent of Republicans feel the same way about Democrats.

Report authors emphasize the extremes are in the minority. At the same time, those with the most extreme values are most likely to be politically engaged.

“These trends manifest themselves in a myriad of ways, both in politics and in everyday life,” say authors of the report.

For instance, in a related PRC study, “Americans, Politics and Science” released in July, 10 percent of conservative Republicans say the Earth is warming due to human activity, while 78 percent of liberal Democrats hold this view.

“It is not surprising that in this polarized political climate, some of the public’s views on science-related issues are strongly influenced by ideology and party identification,” authors say. “The issues that seem most intertwined with political viewpoints are those that link closely to contentious public policy debates with wide media coverage, such as climate change and energy policies.”

Such political provincialism extends to related areas, but not always in the way agricultural producers might think.

The most recent PRC survey asked respondents about the role of government in funding science research. A majority of respondents said government investment in basic science research (71 percent) pays off in the long run (83 percent of Democrats believe that versus 62 percent of Republicans in the study).

There are differences based on other factors, of course. Younger generations are a bit more supportive of public research funding, for instance. College graduates also tend to be more supportive.

When asked about the necessity of government investment versus private investment, 61 percent of respondents said government investment is essential; 34 percent said private investment would be sufficient. Also, 49 percent of Republicans said government funding was essential versus 76 percent of Democrats.

Incidentally, in the same PRC study, 50 percent of all respondents oppose the use of animals in scientific research; 47 percent are in favor. College graduates (54 percent) are in favor versus those with a high school education or less (40 percent). Republicans (55 percent) are more in favor than Democrats (47 percent).

Our expert society

Perhaps it’s only coincidental that such societal position taking began to emerge in concert with the information age.

“We live in what’s considered to be a converged media environment… content flows across multiple platforms,” says Karen Cannon, assistant professor in the University of Nebraska agricultural and environmental sciences communication program. She presented an Animal Care Wednesday webinar, “Understanding Public Perceptions: Challenges and Opportunities in Improving Animal Care,” exploring changes in agriculture and communications and the resulting implications.

“This creates an expectation of a rapid access to information,” Cannon says. “This sense of immediacy has an impact on accuracy and credibility. Because of this rapid access to information there is increased competition for your attention.”

Cannon shares a quote from Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, published in 2009.

Reduced to its core elements, Jenkins says this notion of convergence culture is about the relationship between three concepts: media convergence, a participatory culture and collective intelligence.

Media convergence, as mentioned above, is easy enough to understand. It leads to the second concept of participation.

“You can participate in putting information out there. You don’t have to wait for a gatekeeper or to get published,” Cannon says. “You can participate in your own information dissemination using digital technology.”

The volume and frequency of messaging results in collective consumer intelligence. In other words, if most of the collective space is filled with concerns about animal welfare, the resulting collective conclusion is that there must be a problem. If the collective space is saturated with the idea that agriculture is one of the primary water users, without also considering comprehensive benefit, then the message becomes clear that agriculture is a major problem when it comes to water use.

Moreover, the flood of information and access to multiple media platforms means consumers can construct silos in which they converse with only those who share their opinions.

“We can tailor it so we don’t see any ideas or opinions that are not in line with what we already believe,” Cannon says.

According to a related PRC study, “Political Polarization and Media Habits,” 47 percent of consistent conservatives cite Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics. This group places more distrust than trust in 24 of 36 news sources measured in the survey.

Conversely, consistent liberals are less unified in media loyalty and express more trust than distrust in 28 of 36 news outlets measured in the survey.

“‘Ideological silos’ are now common on both the left and right,” say authors of the first PRC study mentioned. “People with down-the-line ideological positions (especially conservatives) are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.”

For message creators of all stripes, Cannon says the convergence culture makes it more difficult to be heard. Add in the polarization mentioned above and it can verge on impossible.

Aging producers

Now, consider the plight of agricultural producers who are growing older on average.

As Cannon explains, “It seems less and less likely that farmers will retire.”

It could be there are no kids coming back to the operation, or that the cost of entry for young people is prohibitive. It could be the current generation simply is reluctant to hand over the reins.

Whatever the reason, producers of a certain vintage, on average, are least comfortable with the convergence culture.

“Why text, when you can simply pick up the phone?,” some of us wonder. We can’t imagine who has the time to troll the Internet at all hours of the day, much less why anyone would care about a tweet, Instagram or anything else that comes from someone the vast majority of viewers don’t know to begin with.

 “Say what you mean, mean what you say and shut up,” is what many of us were taught. If truth offends the listener, that’s their problem.

It does matter, though, even if some of us will never get our arms wrapped around understanding the beast, no matter how hard we try. It matters because it apparently matters to a large chunk of the other
99 percent of the population.

Never mind the fact that infighting within the industry means the paltry 1 percent in production agriculture disagree about too much.

“The future depends on producers shifting from their current reactive state to one that is proactive,” according to the white paper from this year’s NIAA meeting. “Farmers must voice their positions through emerging channels, not shy away when confronted by those who are misinformed. Those in agriculture need to be at the forefront of communication and be confident leaders.”

Next in the series: Steps agricultural producers can take to listen to opposing viewpoints and articulate their own positions.


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