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3 Challenges in Communicating With the Public

Winner of the 2017 Borlaug Cast Communication Award, Jayson Lusk, shares the three challenges he sees in effectively communicating with the general public as well as some potential solutions.

If you’ve been to an event sponsored by a commodity group or ag company in the past five years, you’ve heard the statistic: The world population will grow to more than 9 billion by 2050. You’ve also heard the rallying call to arms: Farmers must increase yields and productivity to feed the growing population.

While this message may be empowering within agriculture circles, Jayson Lusk says it’s time to drop this argument when connecting with consumers. “When we are communicating that inside the U.S., it’s to people who don’t see it because our populations aren’t growing,” he says. “The problem is real for low- and middle-income countries, but communicating that to people who control the agenda is difficult.”

This is one point of advice Lusk shared at the Borlaug Cast Communication Award presentation on Wednesday. Lusk is the winner of this year’s award for his efforts to communicate optimistic, proactive messages about agriculture, science, and technology, which he has done through his blog, more than 190 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and three books. 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 population.

Here are the three key challenges Lusk sees in effectively communicating with the general public as well as some potential solutions:

1. The growing divergence between eaters and growers.

In 1900, there were 75 farms per 1,000 people. By 2010, that number had dropped to 6.7 farms per 1,000 people.

As a farmer, this may not surprise you. What is surprising is that 7.5% of the farms today produce 80% of today’s output, according to USDA numbers Lusk crunched. (As an ag economist, Lusk uses data interpretations to help communicate his message.)

“That comes out to 159,000 farms, which stresses the challenge that there are so few farms per people. So how does the average food consumer in Des Moines, Chicago, or L.A. know anything about the experiences of those 160,000 farmers?” asks Lusk.

2. The inequality and divergence in food preferences of the rich and poor.

The richer a country becomes the lower percent of income people spend on food. In the U.S., people spend less than 10% of their income on food while poorer countries may spend 40% to 60% of their income. “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,” says Lusk.

To dig into the discrepancy of food preferences between the rich and poor in the U.S., Lusk conducted a Food Demand Survey. He asked people which items are most and least important when purchasing food. When people are more well off, the relative importance increases for naturalness, nutrition, origin, and novelty. On the flip side, those with fewer resources are more concerned with price, safety, and taste.

3. The diverging population trends in high- vs. low-income countries.

This comes back to Lusk’s point that high-income countries have populations that aren’t growing, or may be declining, while low- and middle-income countries have rising populations.

“We certainly need to feed the world, but it’s going to be hard for people in rich countries to feel that urgency. It’s good motivation for us, but not necessarily for everyone else,” explains Lusk.

Instead of focusing on the growing population, Lusk recommends focusing on the values your audience cares about.

“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 says. “We need to talk about inventions that make food tasty and better for the environment to connect with what influencers care about.”

In his book, Lusk shows how technology impacts the user (the farmer) as well as the end user (the consumer). “A lot of technology is valuable to farmers, but people don’t know them so it’s hard for them to see how that matters,” he says.

For example, an entire chapter is dedicated to precision agriculture, explaining the farmer benefits of higher yields but also the environmental benefits in being able to use less nitrogen. “That type of story can appeal to a set of values influencers have,” he says.

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