Recent years have shown an extraordinary shift in our country. For most of history, people were content with their food as far as it was abundant, affordable and safe. Today? Not so. The general public craves information on food and agriculture with an unprecedented passion. But the agricultural sector, unaccustomed to an interested and inquisitive society, has largely failed to respond to the public’s demands for information. Instead, corporations, time-pressed journalists, bloggers, media celebrities, film-makers, authors and concerned consumers jumped in to fill the void. Food is emotional, and these players – some well-intentioned and others not – got a lot of traction playing off consumer fears of the unknown.
This rising interest of the public coincides with mounting challenges to our global food and agricultural system. These challenges are complex, nuanced and interrelated. And yet changing demographics, cultural shifts, technological advances and agriculture’s silence all combined to create the perfect storm – a great chasm between those who know, and those who don’t know, agriculture. The ramifications of a poorly-informed consumer base are now becoming clear in our policy debates and consumer-driven business decisions. There is a lot of common ground between the agricultural sector and their consumer base, but each group largely fails to appreciate it, and the consequences of such a divide grow increasingly dire.
“I wanted to point out that there are so many instances where soundbites from social media oversimplify important truths, be they economic or scientific. Consumers might be able to appreciate these if they had the time or access to the balanced and complete information sources. Unfortunately, now the case is that there is so much bad information out there, it’s difficult to correct what is so engrained in their minds or in our social circles. I think if people can begin to understand this as a problem that is the first step in addressing it,” explained my coauthor Whitney Hodde on her motivations for writing this book.
Myself? I experienced this at a very personal level. I entered the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University as the director of communications in the summer of 2014. I anticipated a learning curve, but nothing like the one I encountered. Nearly everything I thought I understood about food and agriculture was confused, mixed-up or misinterpreted. And I was deeply unnerved by the fact that while many of my misconceptions had been corrected, the rest of the public was not being afforded the same opportunity.
This placed me into a unique position. I saw and empathized with non-agricultural folk, or ‘consumers.’ I had just been once myself. I understood firsthand how incredibly difficult it was to get any sort of reliable and scientific information on food issues. Meanwhile I had come to respect, admire and understand many of my agricultural economist colleagues for their dedication, passion and hard work. Both sides housed wonderful, well-intentioned people. Yet a wedge had been driven between them, arising from a polarizing and massive communication breakdown of increasing severity.
Together, Whitney and I encourage you (be you an agricultural academic, farmer or concerned citizen) to read The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture. It will take all of us working together to bridge this divide. And if you have any doubts as to the seriousness of this situation, this book will lay them to rest. As we say in our introduction, “With only a cursory glance at this title, one might argue that there is no shortage of discussions about agriculture and our food system these days. If you look deeper, however, there is a dearth of meaningful conversation between the right people.” We hope this book will spark some of those discussions.
‘The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture is in many ways a remarkable book. It takes on a set of very controversial topics related to communication on food and agricultural issues and handles them with a balance and perspective that is admirable. The authors review some very emotional cases – pink slime, Chipotles, celebrity bloggers, etc., and they are able to tell the story in an objective reporting manner. They recognize that many of the communication issues in food and agriculture arise because consumers are genuinely concerned about the safety of their food supply. They note that it is indeed unfortunate that some of the key players – farmers, ag businesses, and academics – have little incentive to actively participate in the communications task at hand. They are occupied with their jobs of improving the food system. Yet, the authors conclude, “if we are to create a future of agriculture that is sustainable and abundant, we need to include all stakeholders and cease to perceive communications as secondary in our efforts.”’ — Wallace E. Tyner, James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
‘There’s a lot of talking about food and agriculture but meaningful conversation is much lacking. Eise and Hodde help shed light on the communication problems facing agriculture, and provide insights on how farmers, scientists, and advocates can meaningfully engage with the public.’ — Jayson Lusk, Professor of Agricultural Economics and author of Unnaturally Delicious
‘From pink slime media frenzy to GMOs to agribusiness reputations The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture provides an adeptly, well-sourced analysis of the current of state of agricultural communications. The authors draw a dramatic parallel between what has happened in modern agriculture to what is happening in communications. While awareness and participation in agriculture decreases the blast of new media exists in a second-to-second news cycle that routinely lands on high profile, high response issues. Revealing part of the picture has become the new standard rather than delving into the science of issues to reveal the complex whole. The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture emits a call to all involved—from agriculture academics and agribusinesses to worldwide corporations to the media to consumers—to ask the hard questions, to listen to the detailed explanations, and to seek the conversations in which the seeds for a better informed future can be planted.’ — Maureen Manier, Department Head of Agricultural Communication at College of Agriculture, Purdue University, USA.
‘Eise and Hodde strike to the very heart of what is perhaps modern agriculture’s most serious challenge — a challenge that, if not overcome, could ultimately inhibit our future. Citing both well-known and lesser-known examples from our industry, they show in great detail the perils of under-communicating with consumers in an age of media explosion. But the key, they explain, is not simply more communication. Today’s consumers are deeply engaged in emotional issues surrounding the health and well-being of themselves, their families and their planet. The answers they seek will come not only through good science and solid information, but through voices of understanding. Eise and Hodde issue to us a charge to listen and identify, to find common ground with consumers who are concerned, and to engage with them in a very open and sincere dialogue that will advance our industry and society as a whole.’ — Josh Woods, Director of Communications and Marketing, Auburn University College of Agriculture, USA