Store shelves were laid bare, schools were closed, sports were cancelled, travel was halted, business moved into home offices, and we all faced terrifying unknowns. It was March 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis charged into the United States and upended life as we knew it. The past year spawned a bewildering amount of change in our society.
Perception of science and its role in daily life has shifted significantly during that time. Disruptions in the supply chain have made consumers much more aware of where their food comes from. All these factors influence how consumers view the food supply and the science and technology used to produce, process and market our food.
As we continue our mission to build trust in today’s food system, it is critical that we take stock of what we have learned in the past year.
1. Fear is powerful.
A global pandemic unlike any of us had lived through before understandably caused worry. We took steps to protect our loved ones, with some steps were more rational than others. Gut reactions powered many food buying decisions that continue to influence the food system.
2. Science evolves with new knowledge.
COVID-19 was a novel virus, meaning it was a new strain that had never been identified in humans. Scientists rushed to understand how it affected humans and how it could be controlled. As more was learned about the virus, it became clear that some of the early conclusions were incorrect. People were hungry for information about this sudden new threat. When they learned that previous facts they had been told were inaccurate, it caused confusion, distrust and even anger.
3. Trust in public institutions continues to decline.
We have been tracking this trend for years with our client, The Center for Food Integrity. The pandemic, coupled with the social justice movement and an intensely divisive election cycle, cut the knees out from under what little trust remained. Even scientists, who have traditionally been viewed as more trustworthy, are now viewed with skepticism by many.
4. Information is crowd sourced.
Social media has transformed how we receive and interpret news. As trust in traditional media outlets has declined, people have turned to alternative news sources. Social media provides a constant stream of images, video and claims that may or may not be accurate. We naturally tune into those voices that reinforce what we already believe, reinforcing identity politics on issues from vaccination to farming.
5. Values give science meaning.
Science is usually understood to be objective fact. Our personal perceptions, however, determine what those facts mean in our lives. In the past year, people have analyzed the same information and reached vastly different conclusions about everything from dining out to receiving vaccines. Science is not values neutral. We view scientific data through the lens of our values, beliefs and experience.
How do we adapt?
Agriculture is science driven. We are constantly introducing new techniques and technology to produce and process food that is safe and nutritious. When consumers raise questions about our practices, we have typically responded with more science.
But if fear is more powerful than science, if science evolves, if people don’t trust government or scientists, if people don’t listen to information that contradicts their beliefs, and reach different conclusions about what science means, how do we communicate and engage effectively?
We connect by first identifying those values that we hold in common. Research we conducted for our client, The Center for Food Integrity, in 2009 unveiled that shared values are three to five times more influential than facts in building trust. As our society becomes even more polarized and distrustful of science, engaging with consumers with shared values is more critical than ever before.
In light of this new environment, Look East has developed a special one-hour lightning round Navigate Training that models how to connect with consumers. The program can be offered live or virtually. It is well suited for lunch-and-learn settings or as part of a conference or webinar for broader audiences. Half-day, hands-on workshops can be tailored for individual audiences.
Another lesson from the past year is that the values that connect us are more powerful than those that break us apart. The power of shared values can empower the food system to build trust.