For humanity’s first 10,000 years or so, agriculture had one job: feeding people. Today, in the new age of “conspicuous production,” agriculture’s job is a little more complicated: making better food, as opposed to more, said Jack Bobo, chief executive officer of Futurity, a company that studies emerging food trends.

Jack Bobo
Jack Bobo

Bobo spoke during the U.S. Apple Association’s Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference, held virtually in August. 

Previous generations of Americans wanted to buy as much food as possible as cheaply as possible; but today, many consumers want their food purchases to be an extension of their values. They say they want to know where their food comes from and how it was made, Bobo said. 

“Consumers today have never cared more nor known less about how their food is produced,” he said. 

The situation has led to a disconnect between modern agriculture and modern consumers — a disconnect with negative consequences for producers. Even though their food has never been safer, consumers believe it’s as dangerous and unhealthy as it’s ever been. On top of their worries about things like pesticides and chemicals, they now have something new to worry about: the coronavirus pandemic.

Bobo said the impact of the coronavirus will be felt for decades to come, and, as with past crises, there will be no going back to the way things were before. So, what will the new normal look like? How will people live, work, eat and play in the post-coronavirus world? It’s hard to picture.

Though the pandemic is unprecedented in many ways, past crises have shown how people and businesses deal with this level of uncertainty: They become more cautious. They buy fewer high-end products but more products that make them feel comfortable and safe. This leads to lower economic growth overall, but it could benefit “big food” producers, including the apple industry, Bobo said. 

Farmers today grow more food using less land and water than their predecessors, but American consumers hear more about the negatives of modern food production, including obesity and environmental damage. And thanks to social media, those negative ideas are transmitted more quickly than most organizations can react, he said. 

To meet the challenge of feeding a growing, hungry population as efficiently and sustainably as possible, innovation is crucial. Human beings, however, have a complicated relationship with innovation. 

“People love innovation, but almost as much as they despise change,” Bobo said. “There’s no place people despise change more than in the food they eat.”

So, how do you give consumers the information they need without scaring them? For one thing, farmers and others in the industry need to be better storytellers. Consumers are perfectly happy to absorb new information, but you can’t just “beat people up” with scientific arguments. You have to lead them to knowledge by earning their trust, engaging with them and listening to what they care about, Bobo said. 

“Stop telling people what you do, and tell them why you do it,” he said. •

by Matt Milkovich