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Demand For Transparency In The Agri-food Chain Mounts

Agriculture, processors, retailers, restaurateurs – in fact, all players in the food system – are finding themselves caught in what may at first appear to be new and disparate pressures, but in fact is a convergence of various forms of a rising demand for more transparency.

There is a rising tempo calling for more transparency in the world of food. This can be prompted by activist agendas and viral videos. Demands for transparency range from the cost of food to nutrition to food safety to carbon-footprint information to country (or even county or farm) of origin information. It comes in the form of pressure on farmers to disclose more about how much of the natural resources they use (e.g., water), their employment practices or how animals are treated.

“The fact that much of this is taking place against a backdrop in which consumers (and voters) express declining trust and confidence in all of the big American economic and political institutions that are normally relied on to provide oversight and marketplace transparency, only makes the phenomenon more disorienting,” says Food Foresight* panelist Larry Kaagan of Kaagan Research Associates.

Charlene Li, co-author of the influential book on social media “Groundswell,” argues in for an opportunity to use openness strategically. She draws a distinction between openness and transparency. Transparency, she says, is simply about revealing information to outside parties. Furthermore, she says there’s no way anyone can be completely transparent and we aren’t even completely transparent in our closest personal relationships.

“Openness, on the other hand, implies the greater inclusion of third parties in the operations of a business,” said Li. “Whether it is explaining the motivation behind key decisions, by including customers and partners in the product innovation process, or by conducting customer support in open, public forums, or any other application of social technology that encourages participation.”

Push Forward Strategically
The food industry is, to this point, successfully described, for the most part, as not wanting consumers to know how food is produced. The challenge is to push back on the anti-agricultural forces in a smart way, without linking “crazy, extremist” positions with ethical/values/health concerns that don’t necessarily share the same platform. It doesn’t help to be hostile. Today, activists, business forces (e.g., venture capitalist funding new entrepreneurial enterprises), academics, government agencies and increasingly mainstream opinion leaders are skillfully connecting the dots between food safety, water quality, environmental degradation and animal welfare. Any attempts to demonize those voices or trivialize the concerns they raise in the public mind, won’t work. If fact, it is more likely to add fuel to the fire.

*Food Foresight is a trends intelligence collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc. and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research, University of California, Davis

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