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IDENTIFYING THE GAP BETWEEN CONSUMER AND FARMER
For ag and food companies to move further into the value-chain they need to understand the end-consumer. And it appears there is a lot to learn, or at least a lot of work that needs to be done, for farmer perceptions of consumers, and actual consumer perceptions to match.

Consumers often perceive issues surrounding food production differently than farmers, according to recent research conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, and funded by American Farm Bureau Federation and Philip Morris family of companies. The research shows sizable gaps between consumer perceptions and how farmers perceive consumer perceptions.

The research, conducted in July and August 1999, sought to pinpoint consumers' views and expectations of the food supply and modern farming practices, as well as to learn farmers' perspectives on farming practices and meeting consumer demands. Roper Starch Worldwide interviewed 1,002 consumers with shared or primary food-shopping responsibility for their household, and 704 farmers who served as the primary decision-maker for the farm or ranch.

FARMERS UNDERESTIMATE FOOD ISSUES

Although farmers fairly accurately rate the importance and satisfaction of several food issues to consumers, they fall short in two areas: foods being grown without pesticides and meats and poultry not given antibiotics while being raised.

The mean importance on a scale of 1 to 10 of pesticide-free food for consumers was 7.9 while farmers thought it would be 6.1. Similarly, the mean importance for antibiotic-free meat for consumers was 7.5 while farmers predicted it, too, would be 6.1.

Other points of disparities in consumer and farmer perceptions lie in nutrition, chemicals, taste, and prices.

* Nothing is more important than nutrition, say 86 percent of the consumers. Farmers dramatically underestimate this, with only 58 percent of farmers believing nutrition is the most important thing to consumers.

* For 74 percent of consumers, any price is worth knowing that food has no pesticides or chemicals. Meanwhile, 47 percent of farmers think that consumers would pay any price to be sure that food has no pesticides or chemicals.

* 53 percent of consumers say spots or size do not matter - "all I care about is knowing fruits and vegetables are free of pesticides and chemicals." Only 32 percent of farmers think consumers feel this way.

* Taste is most important to 68 percent of consumers. Here farmers overestimate consumer views - 79 percent of farmers think the most important thing to consumers is taste.

* When choosing among several options, 44 percent of consumers buy the lowest priced foods available. Meanwhile, 56 percent of farmers think consumers look for low price when choosing what foods to buy.

FOOD SAFETY BIGGER CONCERN THAN EXPECTED

One of the largest gaps the research identified is in the area of food safety. Knowing the high standards in place, farmers do not worry a lot about the safety of the food supply. The research shows that two-thirds of the farmer respondents say they worry only a little or not at all about food safety.

And farmers believe consumer perceptions are similar to their own with nearly six in ten farmers responding that they believe consumers worry only a little or not at all about food safety. However, the reality is quite different. More than 60 percent of the consumers surveyed worry some or a great deal about food safety.

FOOD PRODUCTION PERCEPTION DIFFERENCES

In addition to food safety, consumers and farmers rate food production practices differently. Notable gaps exist between ways consumers and farmers believe food production can increase.

For example, 65 percent of the farmers believe more use of pesticides and herbicides would be beneficial to increasing food production. Only 25 percent of consumers share those beliefs, while 63 percent of consumers say such products are only harmful, not beneficial.

Similarly, 73 percent of farmers say more use of chemical fertilizers would be beneficial to increasing production while only 30 percent of consumers agree. Fifty-eight percent of consumers believe increased use of chemical fertilizers would be harmful to increasing production.

This relates to consumer opinions about water quality. Consumers are more than twice as likely as farmers to think that agricultural chemicals in the water supply present a major problem. Sixty-eight percent of consumers believe pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers from farms entering ground water is a major problem. Only 29 percent of farmers share those concerns.

BIOTECHNOLOGY SHOWS PROMISE

To produce enough food for a growing population, consumers overwhelmingly favor biotechnology and land preservation over the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. In fact, 73 percent of consumers, when asked about alternatives to the uses of farm chemicals, say they would be willing to accept biotechnology to develop crops that require fewer pesticides.

A large number of consumers say biotechnology is acceptable, with few consumers saying that biotechnology is "ever acceptable." Generally, farmers find biotechnology or genetic engineering more acceptable than consumers do.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering rated highest among all alternatives to continued use of chemicals in food production. Options included: higher prices; food that is healthy but somewhat damaged by pests; smaller selection of foods; and seasonal availability of foods.

While 37 percent of consumers say they've heard more about the benefits than drawbacks of biotechnology, their support of biotechnology increases to:

* 57 percent if biotechnology improves the taste of foods,

* 65 percent if biotechnology improves the nutritional value of food,

* 69 percent if biotechnology increases food production,

* 73 percent if biotechnology reduces pesticide use.

Farmers believe that consumers have heard more about the drawbacks than benefits of biotechnology. In reality, most consumers haven't heard much at all, good or bad.

CONSUMERS "DON'T KNOW"

Farmers and consumers agree that the agriculture industry could do a much better job of explaining the benefits and drawbacks of modern agricultural practices. Seventy-one percent of farmers and 67 percent of consumers agree that the agricultural industry is doing only a "fair" or "poor" job of explaining the benefits and drawbacks of farming techniques to the public.

"I don't know," and "I haven't heard about it," are the answers of choice for consumers when asked whether they have heard more about the benefits or drawbacks of seven common farming practices. These practices included irradiation (41 percent answered "don't know"), biotechnology (41 percent), antibiotics (31 percent), hormones (28 percent), organic production methods (28 percent) and pesticides and herbicides (13 percent).

The bottom line is that agriculture has an opportunity to educate consumers about the benefits of new agricultural technologies, especially irradiation, biotechnology, and the use of antibiotics to treat animal diseases. But such work must be done quickly.

The study shows that consumers are more likely to label the most widely publicized farm practices as "never acceptable" rather than "always acceptable." This is an indication that as more negative information is publicized, more people will find farming practices unacceptable. AM


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