For decades people have migrated from the farm to towns and cities, leaving behind a growing gap of knowledge and understanding. That’s a tenuous position for two sectors that rely on each other so deeply day in and day out.

As farmers embrace technology to advance the efficiency, quality and constancy of their products, the consumer has responded with skepticism because the basic practices that where once vaguely familiar to them grew increasingly more foreign.  

Attempts to bridge that gap have come in many forms and it continues to be a priority for agriculture, yet it’s filled with struggles. But according to new research from the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), consumer attitudes toward modern food production and its technologies can be advanced by providing information from credible sources. The goal must be to help consumers understand the broader social benefits of today’s systems.

CFI points to its 2012 Consumer Trust in the Food System study, which showed the proper sources and messages can boost support for certain modern farming technologies.

An online survey of 2,001 people conducted this summer measured attitudes toward five technologies commonly used in today’s farming systems. The consumer attitudes were re-measured after the participants received messages from credible sources that outlined the environmental, social or animal well-being benefits of the technologies.

Specifically, the CFI study showed double-digit positive gains for topics such as genetically modified crops, antibiotic use in meat animals and indoor food-animal production.

“This data gives us a better understanding of the kinds of messaging we can use to move the needle in a positive direction,” says Charlie Arnot, CFI chief executive officer. He points out the data provides insight into the messages resonate with consumers to increase their support for production practices that allow farmers to produce more food using fewer resources. 

“Our focus this year was finding compelling ways to convey that today’s food system is better aligned with mainstream values than many (consumers) realize,” Arnot says.

Some of the messages that were most effective in changing consumer attitudes would be considered basic information to those familiar with modern farming techniques, he adds. For example, informing survey participants that raising food-animals indoors protects them from predators and bad weather resulted in a significant improvement in positive attitudes. The same goes for messages that explained using genetically modified seeds reduces water and fuel usage, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“This might be painfully obvious to some,” Arnot notes, “but, if we don’t talk about these positive attributes they may not be perceived as benefits by a public that is largely unfamiliar with agriculture.”

Among other survey findings:

  • When food safety questions arise, 45 percent of consumers search for more information online.
  • Facebook is the No. 1 Internet connection site for food bloggers.
  • Consumer concern about food safety is up 5 percent compared to one year ago; concern about the economy, rising health care costs and rising energy prices is up 2 percent or less

This is the fifth year that CFI has conducted such consumer trust research. “This year we segmented the population by Values Orientation and we targeted Early Adopters.  Since shared values drive trust, we need to be able to better understand consumer attitudes based on their Values Orientation,” Arnot points out.  “Targeting Early Adopters also helps us connect with information-seeking consumers who will drive public sentiment on food issues. Giving Early Adopters information from sources they consider credible has a positive impact on their attitudes and opinions.”

CFI  will release more information from its 2012 study at its Food Integrity Summit, Oct. 23-24 in Chicago.