Food futurist shifts from science arguments to trust |

Food futurist shifts from science arguments to trust

VAIL, Colo. – For years, as a State Department official and as a self-described food futurist in private business, Jack Bobo tried to convince people to follow the science on the genetic modification of crops and other difficult agricultural issues.

But at the recent International Sweetener Symposium here, Bobo told the nation’s cane and beet growers he has concluded that “you can’t convince anyone with the science. If you start a conversation with science, you polarize people.”

Instead, Bobo told the farmers, it’s important to establish trust with the audience before discussing controversial issues.

“Personalize the stories you tell, acknowledge concerns, connect and then build trust,” Bobo said. “Stop telling them what you do and tell them why you do it.”

“There is a difference between beating people up with science rather than bringing them knowledge,” he said. “Science tells us what we can do. The public tells us what we should do.”

Whether farmers can continue farming practices they believe in “depends on whether consumers trust us,” he said.

Bobo, author of the book “Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices,” is now the director of global food and water policy for The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is an environmental organization that, he noted, “works with farmers and ranchers around the world with the understanding that conservation measures don’t make sense if they don’t make economic sense.”

Bobo’s topic at the symposium was sustainability, a concept that is now influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions and lawmakers’ policy decisions. (Sustainability is a broad term but it generally means the ability to be maintained at a certain rate and the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.)

“Sustainability is a trend, not a fad,” Bobo said. “Sustainability matters to consumers and to your bottom line.”

“Consumers have never cared more or known less how their food is produced. They want their purchases to be an extension of their personal values,” he said.

Small farms that use less water and pesticides appear more sustainable even if they produce less food, Bobo said.

But with a growing world population, if food production goes down in one place that means it has to go up somewhere else. The population is growing, Bobo said, because there are so many young people who will have children, and people are living longer. After 2050, he said, population growth will level off.

The answer, he said, is intensive food production and making sustainability discussions global, not local.

“Consumers, growers and food companies think about sustainability in very different ways,” he said.

“Consumers can’t see the benefits of intensification,” he said.

“If Americans eat less beef, that doesn’t mean we should produce less meat. We need to double protein production,” he said.

Consumer packaged goods companies (CPG) focus on local sustainability rather than global, he said, adding that there needs to be conversation with the CPG companies so they understand the tradeoffs.

Ecolabels on food, he said, don’t reflect the difference between local and global sustainability and will be misleading. European labels will reward local sustainability, but lead to imports from Brazil, he added.

While the use of land for agriculture leads to deforestation, intensive use of land in production can protect forests, he noted.

Farmers need to insist on being part of government discussions about sustainability policy, he said.

“A lot of conversations are taking place between environmental ministers without agriculture at the table. That means you are on the menu,” Bobo said. “It is important to be part of these conversations.”

Agriculture is actually more sustainable today than it was 40 years ago because production levels are higher, the amount of resources used to produce a bushel of corn is lower and, as a percentage of the world population, fewer people are undernourished, he said.

The real issue with sustainability and climate change, he said, is that the situation “is not getting better fast enough.”

Farmers should be praised for what they are doing and asked how they can be helped to speed up sustainability, he concluded.


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