Farming, food and “What’s in it for me?”

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Over at The Independent, Joan Smith has written an editorial piece about (very roughly speaking) fair pricing for farmers called “There’s no latte without a dairy farmer“. Before I even began reading the article, I had one of those a-ha moments, when I realized that this is what is missing from most communications about food and agriculture: the concrete details that make people understand how these big debates relate to them.

I sincerely believe that agriculture is at the centre of all of the major challenges we face as a global civilisation. But I also believe this simple fact has almost no emotional resonance with the general public. I applaud initiatives like #agchat (which also has UK and Australian derivations) and the enterprising young farmers behind “I’m farming and I grow it“. But these still all approach the issues from the farmer’s perspective.

If we want urban populations to understand and care about farming, we need to make it concrete for them. Starting with their latte is a great reference point for many young urban professionals. Work backwards from the latte to the farmer and the issues related to production. Tell them the story of their latte, not of the milk commodity market or even of the earnest dairy farmer. 

Start with the fashionable and biodegradable cotton shirt and work backward from there.

And so on. Stop talking in terms of commodities and entire harvests, which are too far removed from people’s every day lives.

Yes, feeding the world is important. Yes, agriculture and climate change issues are intimately interlinked, but that is too big for most people to absorb. Please, don’t think I am saying most people are stupid. We are capable of abstract thought, but wired to look for patterns in our every day experience. The pattern-seeking is instinctive and trumps abstract thought without most people even realizing what is going on. Our experiences also trigger emotions, which are our primal way of judging the world, and those emotions are triggered by sensory experiences. Neuroscience shows increasingly that people make decisions based on emotion and then rationalize them based on abstract thought.

I can still remember an advertising campaign from more than 15 years ago to sensitise people about what chemistry has added to our lives. One of the most striking images was an IV bag in a hospital. Just that one image, made me think, “Wow, what would we do without plastic for IV bags? And if we didn’t have IV bags, would that keep us from saving lives?” I didn’t need the whole catalog of benefits or the statistics. Just one striking image that caught me emotionally and is still with me today.

That is the kind of communication that agriculture needs today to reconnect to urban consumers (and voters). Filling in the picture about what agriculture provides and how it provides it, one detail at a time, starting with the delicious aroma of the coffee wafting through the shop as you approach the counter to order your latte.

Photo: iStockphoto

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