The tried-and-true message of farmers needing new technologies to feed a booming world population is increasingly falling on deaf ears in the United States, where consumers have more choices than ever before, Purdue University agricultural economist Jayson Lusk said last week at the World Food Prize.
The facts haven’t changed, said Lusk, who accepted the Borlaug CAST Communication Award from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.
Farmers still need to produce enough food to feed 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 using less land, less water, less labor and fewer inputs.
But that message doesn’t resonate with leading food influencers in the United States, who tend to be politicians, media and Hollywood stars at the upper end of income earners.
“The core of their message is that our food system is broken, and the pervading sentiment is that what is wrong is the adoption of science and technology,” said Lusk. “It matters how we engage with them. I think that’s the key challenge of our time.”
It’s a jarring difference from third-world countries, where millions of people simply wonder where their next meal is coming from, he said.
In the U.S., consumers spend less than 10 percent of their income on food, compared to 40 to 60 percent in poorer countries.
“Yet it’s the folks on the richer end of the spectrum that set the framework for food policy issues and influence media discussions about what’s important in agriculture,” said Lusk. “The problem is real for low- and middle-income countries, but communicating that to people who control the agenda is difficult.”
Food demand surveys show high-income people have vastly different priorities than low-income people, Lusk reported. Wealthier people place more emphasis on naturalness, nutrition, origin and novelty, he said. Meanwhile, those with fewer resources are more concerned with price, safety and taste.
There’s also a growing disconnect between farmers and urban consumers, which can been seen in voting records in California that show opinions on social issues and food labeling measures are largely divided on rural and urban lines.
“There’s something deeper there,” said Lusk. “It’s not a conversation about science and technology. It’s a conversation about the values of urban versus rural.”
The best way to connect with food system influencers is by telling optimistic, forward-looking stories that align with their values, Lust said. For example, farmers and scientists should show consumers how technology and innovations are helping them use less fertilizer to grow food, which results in better water quality, he suggested.
“It matters how you tell your story. Communicate in terms of values of urban consumers, which may be the environment, nutrition and what you do to preserve nature,” he said. “We need to talk about inventions that make food tasty and better for the environment to connect with what influencers care about.”
About the award
The Borlaug CAST Communication Award recognizes science or agriculture experts who demonstrate an ability to communicate through written material, public presentations and various forms of media.
Lusk, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, promotes agricultural science and technology in the public arena using multiple forms of media to advocate for science.
His blog (jaysonlusk.com) explores how innovation and growth in agriculture are critical for food security and global progress. His most recent book, “Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World,” explains how science and innovation are linked with feeding the growing global population.