Agriculture and sustainability are complex themes with many related aspects to be considered for any fact-based discussion on the subjects. And even a general understanding of the associations involved requires some education on the subjects as well as time and energy spent in learning. It’s therefore no surprise that »normal« consumers don’t have this required background knowledge, or at least not enough of it. What is a surprise is the oft-heard opinion in agricultural discussions that all that’s needed for a layperson, the consumer, to understand the facts is a simple explanation.
Despite, or precisely because of, this limited understanding, public confrontations on agricultural themes are usually very emotional and supported by very evocative images. From the point of view of agriculture and its institutions, it’s often irritating that their arguments, seen by them as particularly robust and convincing, have hardly any effect. As annoying this limited success of perceived excellent arguments may often be, the outcome follows a proven principle. For this reason, understanding the process of public discussions is a necessary requirement for the development of targeted and appropriate communication strategies. In this relationship, the following eight points appear to us to be of especial importance.
Many arguments conducted by consumers when discussing agriculture might well be assessed by specialists as inadequate. Conversely, consumers often react to presumably good arguments with disbelief and dismissal. This is simply because the consumer usually cannot appreciate the validity of the argument because he or she does not have the necessary background knowledge.
The question is: who in the argument is to be believed. Protagonists are often institutions or organisations that consumers trust in the assumption that they represent consumer interests: environmental or consumer associations or animal protection organisations, for example. In such cases, belief depends less on the validity of the argument and more on which body supports this point of view.
Even where consumers are persuaded through farm visits or associated discussions, this doesn’t mean a permanent conversion. If another discussion partner delivers arguments at least superficially plausible and is assessed as believable, then a position won can be quickly lost again.
In the light of this insufficient knowledge and the value that consumers put on environment and food, it is very easy to raise fears about, e.g. plant protection materials or antibiotic use in livestock production. Even if the treatment is justifiable, such fears are powerful, quickly engendered and influence the image the consumer has of agriculture. This is why so many consumers can quickly conjure up at any time horror images of animal production, even when they have never before seen the insides of a barn.
The image of agriculture comprises fragments sourced from the media, from personal conversations, perhaps also recalled from a few personal experiences. This applies to the personal conception of what is happening in modern agricultural, as well as to what the consumer imagines should be happening. As a rule, consumers form a personal opinion that is independent from their level of knowledge.
Our research on opinions formed on agriculture regularly produces images and stories over the »good old times« that play a decisive role. The simple life, honesty and tradition are key words with which these images are animated. Their power is drawn out of childhood memories, from advertising or sentimental films of regional background, as well as from the longing for an uncomplicated, undemanding world. This »museum agriculture« is a form of farming which is judged nature-near and animal friendly. Because many consumers don’t know about the complexities of agriculture, »museum agriculture« is often the only conception, a dominating idea of how agriculture should be carried out. In many cases, consumers know that such a picture is neither realistic nor realisable. However, they have no alternative to their conception of »good« agriculture.
The less the forming of opinions is influenced by specialist knowledge, the easier it is to make demands without any thoughts on the consequences. Limited know-how doesn’t prevent consumers formulating diffuse demands. The lack of thought behind such demands doesn’t mean they are regarded as insignificant, at least by politicians and the trade, who react by introducing laws or new standards.
While scientists and other experts conduct discussions on the basis of empirical knowledge and fact-based logic, consumers remain in a world of images and fragments of information »stuck together« from various sources. It’s easy to get annoyed about this. But we must remember that this opinion-forming is the only one open to the consumer with limited background knowledge. And once an image is formed, it is protected because any further information is selectively chosen and interpreted to fit with the established picture, thus avoiding the laborious process of continually appraising one’s opinion and, even more, continuously estimating the consequences of any demands and idealised perceptions. From the factual point of view, this type of logic is an affront. It is, however, exceptionally common in day-to-day life.
Specialists tend to favour the fallacy that their factually based arguments and evidence are all acceptable to consumers because the reasoning behind them is sound. They find it difficult to appreciate that consumers are not in the position to competently assess such arguments. Consumers appear stubborn and silly, simply because they don’t see the world as do those who regard themselves as specialists.
Effective communication, on the other hand, has only a chance of success when it takes account of the outlook of those being addressed, their respective limitations of understanding and whatever capacities they may have for opinion-forming and discernment. Effective communication therefore demands a change in perspective. Changing perspective involves looking at things through the thoughts or feelings of someone else, or a customer group. This aspect helps creation of new communication strategies using a didactic approach, finding and applying images, slogans and models with which the required information can best be conveyed. Targeted communication requires this perspective change and acknowledgement of the difficulties that consumers inevitably have with the theme agriculture.
Those who know more about consumers’ opinion-forming procedures can communicate much more effectively. When consumers feel that they are understood then it is much easier for them to appreciate the farmers’ position.