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0307 PD: Labeling three pictures

Published on 06 March 2007

Flying to California to attend World Ag Expo in February, I re-learned an important lesson about the public’s perception of agriculture.

Interestingly, it was an in-flight game that recalled an obvious, but often forgotten, reality about today’s food consumers.

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The airplane carrying me and a hundred other passengers was outfitted with video display consoles above every three or four rows. Throughout the flight, the monitor displayed trivia questions from the board game Cranium. As a proud owner of many useless facts, I occasionally gauge the entertainment value of games based on the difficulty of their questions. This game did not escape a similar review.

I found the game’s trivia was impressive – not too hard but not too easy.

Several questions into the game, the monitor displayed a question and three images. The question asked players to identify three images, which were close-up photos of a freestall barn, a hay bale (which the game said was a straw bale) and a pig’s ear, to determine what they had in common.

I quickly noticed these photos all came from a farm. But as other passengers stared at the photos for seconds longer, I realized these images aren’t familiar to most people. I asked myself, “Could most people accurately identify and place these photos, even if they were permitted to see the entire photo?”

While the discussion about the disconnect consumers have with the production of their food is not a new subject, it’s something everyone in agriculture needs to be reminded of frequently.

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The production efficiency we enjoy today began decades ago. Early advances in efficiency helped our country win World War II and transformed agriculture after the war ended. The adoption of technology to generate ever greater production levels wasn’t questioned in that era. The “greatest generation” comprised hardworking farmers who had gone to war, learned efficient production and were committed to the “greater good.” When they returned to their fields, they were growing crops for consumers who had starved through the Great Depression and sacrificed to win a global conflict. Gratitude came in greater abundance.

However, today’s consumers are a stark contrast to previous generations. Efficiency is less valuable to these consumers. Value for them is derived from a product’s social status. These consumers are willing to spend money to have food produced the way they want it produced, and they want it labeled so they can quickly judge its lack of value or tout its wholesomeness.

Unfortunately for agricultural producers, labels derive their messages from the number of people discussing their meaning. So far there haven’t been enough voices in agriculture talking about today’s agricultural processes or the labels that pretend to accurately describe those processes.

More producers should join these public food discussions, adding their own descriptions about safe production methods and food labeling. Otherwise, producers shouldn’t complain when they find themselves sitting next to someone who labels the same pictures that I saw on my flight to California “confined housing,” “conventional feed” and “cloned meat.” PD

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