Opinion: We can’t feed people if they don’t trust us

Jack Bobo sounds a bit like the name of a Disney cartoon character.

But nothing could be further from the truth. I recently had the privilege of listening to Mr Bobo speak on the anomalies between truth and perception in the public mind.

Having poked gentle fun at his name, I should set out his credentials.

Jack Bobo is a senior advisor for global food policy at the US Department of State. He is responsible for developing and implementing US trade policy relating to new agricultural technologies and working with foreign (ie non-US) governments to address regulatory barriers to US agricultural exports.

He has degrees in chemistry, biology and psychology, is a Master of Science and has practiced law in Washington DC. So, not a Disney character then.

Speaking from a US perspective, although with an obvious understanding of what goes on in Europe, he reflected on the sceptical consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.

“People love innovation,” he said, “almost as much as they despise change.” And, led by the media, they tend to worry about small risks more than big ones.

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For instance, the risk of catching flu each winter is high, but the media tend to treat it as low risk, so getting vaccinated each autumn is often not a high priority.

Meanwhile, GMOs pose a very low risk, but media attention on them is high so they attract disproportionate concern from consumers.

This means that those of us who believe in the science on these matters have got to become “better storytellers” to connect with and earn the trust of those convinced the science is wrong.

Simply exhibiting the statistics is seldom enough to change people’s perceptions, said Mr Bobo. They have to trust the individual telling the story before they will change their minds.

Politicians are no different from the man and woman in the street, he said. And he went on to suggest that, despite growing domestic demand, lack of investment in science meant the UK would probably not increase food production over the next 20 years by more than 4%.

Whereas Brazil, responding to the demand from countries like Britain, would probably increase production by 40% over the same period.

So, we need extra production in the short and medium term to feed the nine to 10 billion people who will populate the planet by 2050. The mothers and fathers of those extra people are already born and growing up, so we can accurately assess the challenge ahead, he went on.

But by 2050, population growth will slow and level off. If we can do what is necessary to feed the world until then, everything after that will be easy.

I hadn’t heard the challenge the world’s farmers face put quite like that before. But the key to meeting it remains gaining the trust of consumers and politicians who will decide and dictate the environment in which we farmers will have to tackle the task over the next few years.

It will also depend on the negative arguments put forward by some single-issue pressure groups whose activities inhibit optimum production.

Meanwhile, I want to pay a huge tribute to Leaf (Linking Environment And Farming) and its members, whose activities, including, and notably, the recent Open Farm Sunday, are in my view exactly what are required to start changing some of those negative perceptions that are bad for farmers but potentially even worse for consumers.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob

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