The Food System Gap Highlighted by COVID-19

It only took a few weeks back in late March for Canadians – farmers, consumers, processors, and store owners alike – to realize how tenuous our food system really is.

Supply chains stretched and frayed; luckily, they didn’t completely snap. Despite some losses (disastrously on the farm side as around the world milk was dumped, animals were euthanized, and plants and vegetables were plowed under), various players in the food sector quickly mobilized and pivoted to address the challenges, ensuring that grocery store shelves were not left entirely empty.  

The pandemic has highlighted several fractures in our carefully constructed, post-WWII systems (health, economy, education, and food) – systems that underpin what it means to be a first world country –  sending pearl-clutching tremors all along the food supply chain from farm to consumer.

In addition to the shock of realizing that food aisles in Canada could potentially be empty within a few days under an economic shutdown scenario as recently experienced, food supply disruptions reintroduced an issue that most working in the agriculture industry already know about: the ‘experience gap’ that exists between farmer and consumer.

In an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, Tara Westover, best-selling author of ‘Educated’, told Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, that an experience gap “exists in our national life – that we no longer share some underlying common experiences as Americans.” Key among those experiences is ubiquitous general knowledge about how our food is produced, why it’s produced a certain way, and what it takes to maintain a sustainable – and stable – food system.

A person’s experience is “a process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something; of gaining knowledge or practical wisdom from those observations, encounters, or situations endured”. As such, there are multiple experience gaps in our modern world – gender, race, religious, political – that affect the decisions we make, the policies we develop, and ultimately which ideas and even industries survive.

The world’s economy has changed significantly in the last century. In Canada this means that less than 2% of the population now operates a primary agricultural business. Not surprisingly, this lack of context and contact between farm and consumer has created an experience gap or, as marketing guru Seth Godin put it, “experience asymmetry”.               

Why is this asymmetric imbalance so important to rectify, not only for the agriculture industry, but for food processors, retailers, and consumers alike? How can we correct an imbalance of experience that could undermine an industry key to the self-sufficiency of Canada’s 37+ million people – especially when a global pandemic can spark precarious self-sufficiency within days or weeks?

To begin with, we need to recognize that people don’t know what they don’t know and, in turn, that effects what they pay attention to and how they learn. I’m a sixth-generation dairy farmer, but I know very little about apple production even though I’m surrounded by apple farms. I know less still about raising goats though my neighbour does, and zilch about growing almonds (at least I can claim legitimate innocence on this one since there are no commercial almond growers in Canada).

In the everyday world, we focus on what we know, what we’re good at, what we’re passionate about, what and who we care about. There are only so many hours in a day, so we typically focus on the immediate, the relevant, the kind of stuff that will grow our businesses and provide for our families. Unless knowledge about apples, almonds or goats is going to help me somehow on my dairy farm (many basic business lessons are applicable to any business; I’m talking about the technical, sector-specific aspects that don’t necessarily transfer), then I’m going to stuff my brain with bits of information that are important to me and my business, not things that are extraneous or superfluous.

Similarly, a Canadian consumer doesn’t necessarily need or maybe even isn’t inclined to know all the mundane details of, for example, how milk gets to the store if it’s always abundantly, unquestionably there. As a consumer of clothes, beer, and gas I don’t give any of those items much thought – ok, full disclosure: I give no thought at all to their provenance as long as they’re available when I walk in the store or pull up to the pump.

Furthermore, the onus to build a more collaborative understanding of our food system should not fall solely on the consumer or the farmer. While meaningful farm to consumer interactions can be difficult to contrive, farmers can proactively observe current real-world and online content around food and farming and initiate dialogue that builds transparency, credibility and trust; dialogue designed to meet people where they’re at on the learning spectrum.

In turn, consumers can be more open to understanding that we aren’t living in the 1930’s. Humans will always be nostalgic for things that prompt memories of a happy childhood or “simpler” times, but Noah’s Ark-type farms (multiple varieties of paired animals) with little red barns aren’t any more ‘real’ in the ag biz world than newsboys hawking papers on the corner are relevant in our digital tech world. Agriculture is an industry that has constantly modernized to meet consumer demands and trends, that innovates for efficiency and adequate productivity levels to make a profit – just like every other business. Curiously, consumers often measure ag businesses by a different standard, but it is not a realistic one if we want to ensure a constant, sustainable, homegrown food supply.

Based on the above definition of experience, farmers have personally observed, encountered, or undergone the process of gaining critical, intimate, and excruciatingly detailed knowledge of the agriculture industry. Akin to the medical field, this centuries-worth of accumulated practical, scientific wisdom should not be brushed aside, but rather leveraged to pique curiosity, spark intrigue, and highlight knowledge gaps. (Did you know that humans find it very uncomfortable to be made suddenly aware that they have a gap in their knowledge? They want to fill it and fill it fast – providing ample opportunity to ignite a farm to consumer dialogue.)

But how can we correct the imbalance of experience? We can’t throw out handfuls of knowledge like so many candies from a parade float. If consumers (and farmers from sectors different than yours fall into this category as well) were inclined to know more, to top up their knowledge deficit and fill those experience gaps, what would that look like and how should we go about it?

First, let’s consider that ag speak can sound like a foreign language to most people. People from different cultures misunderstand another’s customs and beliefs because they perceive the world around them differently and speak in relation to those perceptions. Using best practices from research in cross-cultural communications we can overcome the farm to consumer cross-cultural missteps that manifest in the form of concerns, misperceptions, and language differences and which often result in misunderstandings and mistrust.

Farmers can help bridge the cross-cultural farmer-consumer void by breaking topics down into more knowable parts. What common threads can you find in what you do and what the consumer knows? Build from the ground up. What are they concerned about? If you have similar concerns, focus dialogue on sussing out collaborative solutions. For clarity and resonance, we can also translate the science of agriculture – the everyday lingo you and I speak – into laymen terms that are relevant to the daily decisions people make about their lives, families and communities.

Perspective taking is another useful tactic. It takes empathy (the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference) a step further. Perspective taking is “a multidimensional ability that includes understanding not only of someone’s visual assessment of reality (their viewpoint), but also their perceptual assessment (their understanding)”, says an article in Psychology Today. Or, as defined on, “Empathy is the ability to take on and relate to someone else’s feeling or emotions. Perspective taking removes all the emotional aspects, concerned strictly with how the other person perceives a situation.” It doesn’t just put you in someone’s shoes; you take a days-long walk through the person’s routines, interactions, thoughts and experiences.

Perceptual positioning is equally useful for connecting on an experiential level. It helps you take a position outside of the view you typically hold on an issue, enabling you to explore other angles. The key to this approach is to work your way through the four positions (1 – how it looks through your eyes; 2 – in the position of the other person looking back at you; 3 – considering the issue from a fly on the wall perspective; and 4 – bringing yourself back to you with new information gathered through the various perspectives), so that information gets filtered through your sensory channels (e.g.: sight, sound, and touch) rather than through logical (often biased) processing filters.

A little strategic empathy must also be thrown into the mix. Strategic empathy involves “trying to understand how the world looks to others, and how those perceptions, as well as emotions and aspirations, influence their policies and actions”, according to the article “What China Wants” in the May 2020 edition of The Atlantic. They continue: “An outlook of strategic empathy, taking into account history and experience, leads to a very different set of assumptions.” Assumptions exert a profound influence on how we interpret the information we receive and subsequently affect our interactions. Honing our strategic empathy skills edges out assumptions to create a space for curiosity and critical thinking which help us to understand people on a deeper level; specifically, the reasons behind an opinion or an action – opinions and actions that spring from their experiences.

In a world that is always ‘on’, our brains have reverted to amygdala-driven responses; day-long digital stimulation and daily stress puts us on cave(wo)man levels of alertness, where knee-jerk reactions  stemming from biases and mental shortcuts are our first response.  Add to this the upheaval and uncertainty of a global pandemic, and it’s a recipe for becoming more high-alert, cautious, and skeptical.

However, the hardware that makes up the human brain essentially hasn’t changed in thousands of years and while that has a downside as noted above (stress hijacking our amygdalas), it also means that we can respond and relate to one another in a very basic and functional way. As Tali Sharot wrote in her book ‘The Influential Mind’, “[I]f we want to affect behaviours and beliefs of the person in front of us, we need to first understand what goes on inside their head and go along with how their brain works.” Understanding how people receive, process, store, and retrieve information helps us to find common ground by uncovering and nurturing shared realities – realities that stem from our experiences. To close the experience gap, we need to train our knee-jerk reactions to respond on a brain to brain level, i.e.: person to person, rather than on an amygdala stress response level.

Sometimes farm to consumer conversations are like rodeos: you fight for eight seconds to get someone’s attention before being knocked to the ground with disinterest or, worse yet, indifference. Other times, it’s like a monotonous day of hauling load after load from field to farm: you’re repetitively harping on the same messages, hoping it will spark an ‘a-ha!’, but brains have tuned out and shut down from exhaustive redundancy or information overload. What we need instead are high-impact moments of intrigue, the type that resonate so emotionally that they stick in your mind, like the type of experiences that stand out sharply in your memory: the first time dad sent you to bale by yourself, the first weekend you were left in charge of the farm. Experiences are imprinted on the mind and help shape who we are. If we pool our stories and experiences, find the commonalities, and pull from each other’s realities to fill gaps, the collective value could generate something bigger and better.

When farmers share experiences with each other over coffee shop drinks, they add to one another’s knowledge banks. And diversity on teams has been proven time and again to boost the performance of those teams, because a variety of experience and knowledge at the table means there is a better chance of generating solutions – more ingredients make a more delicious omelet. Let’s apply these same concepts to close the experience gap.

Everyone has a unique life experience, and everyone is entitled to their own experience. But if we take the time to listen, empathize, perceptually position ourselves for a few moments in someone else’s lived experience, and connect brain to brain, we just might develop a pandemic-proof, future-proof, proudly Canadian agriculture industry over which everyone has a sense of ownership because it was created, and experienced, together.

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