Opinion: We must bridge the farmer-consumer disconnect

We live in an age of astounding technological breakthroughs, moving from pay phones to smartphones and paper maps to Google maps in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Medical advances have enabled precision diagnostics and robotic devices to quickly pinpoint problems and alleviate suffering. And now we’re exploring genetic tools that may one day bring sight to the blind and prevent incurable diseases. 

We rightly celebrate these modern technologies, but the same cannot always be said about agriculture.

See also: How innovation could reduce drudgery of ordering farm inputs

Yet, by any meaningful measure, modern agriculture is an unqualified success. Farmers today produce more food on less land and feed more people cost-effectively than before.

But, instead of celebrating the advances that made this possible, many consumers are fearful of them. Clearly, there is an “innovation disconnect” when it comes to food production, and if we are to feed the world we must bridge this gap.

Understanding the disconnect

It’s important to understand why this disconnect exists. In highly developed countries, only a fraction of the population work on a farm. As such, there is relatively little understanding or appreciation of the innovations that make our food production successful.

Consumers are literally disconnected from the farm – and that’s only half of the story.

Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published more than 50 years ago, a greater environmental awareness is now established in our public consciousness.

The benefits of industrial chemicals, including pesticides, have been overshadowed by concerns about human health and the environment.

Add to that a general mistrust of institutions, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for misunderstanding. Recent worldwide surveys tell us that, while most consumers support innovations that help fight global hunger, they are also concerned that the tools used today may be harming people and the planet.

Addressing this disconnect is not a one-way conversation. We should start by listening to consumer concerns and finding common ground.

We know they care deeply about human safety, biodiversity, water quality, soil health and environmental sustainability – the same considerations that are driving the next generation of agricultural innovations.

We need to better explain why innovation is not the cause of their concerns, but the solution to them. And we must understand that, because consumers ultimately define what foods or farm practices are acceptable, we should be attentive to their concerns and responsive to their needs.

False expectation

When people stand in the grocery aisle at a local supermarket, many don’t realise they are seeing the results of modern agriculture’s innovation. They want more choice and variety without technological advancements in agriculture – but that is a false expectation.

With the world’s population increasing, we must find new ways to safely and sustainably increase food production by 50% by 2050. We know this cannot happen by adopting the farming practices of yesterday.

If the public has little understanding of the realities of farming, then it’s up to us in agriculture to help bridge that disconnect. We must draw a clear connection to the innovations we pursue, and the direct benefits people will experience within their families and communities, as a result. 

We must talk openly, clearly and specifically about the challenges we face and the race for solutions.

Adrian Percy is the ag technology ambassador at Bayer Crop Science

See more