Traditional science institutions, especially the land-grant universities, appear to be taking a back seat to popular and private information sources in many discussions about agriculture, food systems and food choices.
Science is not the foundation for decision-making it once was, according to a recent Food Foresight trends report from Nuffer, Smith, Tucker and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at University of California, Davis.
Support for “public” science across a number of traditional fronts is eroding. As this plays out, important decisions affecting the agri-food chain may be made using only perception and inferences rather than data and facts. The challenge for science and, we would argue, the agri-food chain is to reclaim relevancy for science in long-term decisions.
Consumers – and for that matter, government officials and health professionals – are not turning to the traditional institutions as a resource like they once did. They’re pulling the information they want from sources they choose, such as the Internet and personally selected media and expert sources.
To the chagrin of traditional scientists and some industry leaders, few check or verify the information that these consumers, thought leaders and policymakers receive (and often believe).
This new paradigm counts on the collective wisdom of the crowd to trump the professionals who once served as guardians of accuracy. In fact, research from a variety of Food Foresight sources shows that the biggest influence on consumer decisions is coming from personal networks of neighbors, family and friends. And, with the Internet, that neighbor or friend may be next door or around the world.
Reclaiming relevancy for science will take new approaches. Whatever the approach, credibility is likely to come from sources inclusive of many points of view. Picture multi-stakeholder partnerships around issues like obesity, sustainability and the health care food nexus. These arrangements will feed on public, private and popular information sources. Fundamental honesty will be the price of admission with inaccuracy or insincerity quickly identified as such and exposed.
It will be up to scientists and, for that matter, agri-food companies to determine the advantage of participating in what is likely to be a transparent process of vetting and distributing credible information. Science can have a say, but it won’t be the only voice. Organizations and individuals that choose to go it alone, no matter how “good” their science, will be marginalized as these stakeholder partnerships build trust and credibility
The benefits of agri-food scientists and companies engaging and embracing in these new consumer-driven information venues and fueling a voice for science within “the wisdom of the crowd” far outweighs the risks of standing on the sidelines and allowing inaccurate information to continue to go unchecked. As the saying goes, you’re either at the table or on the menu.