By Belinda Burrier, Maryland soybean farmer, United Soybean Board Director
Belinda and her husband, Dave, grow soybeans, corn, wheat and hay on their farm in Union Bridge, Maryland. They have two daughters who continue to help on the farm as they start families of their own.
The U.S. is a nation of great abundance, with a majority of us having access to safe, nutritious food round the clock. That’s why it’s particularly unnerving that we’re periodically seeing bare store shelves and feeling the pain in the grocery check-out line as the clerk totals our purchases. The onslaught of headlines about supply chain issues, global conflicts, climate change, and a looming global food crisis is something most of us have not witnessed in our lifetimes.
The United Nations estimates that in the past year, global food prices have risen by almost one-third, fertilizer by more than half, and oil prices by almost two-thirds. In addition, the U.N. reports the number of severely food-insecure people has doubled in the past two years and more than half a million people are experiencing famine conditions, an increase of more than 500% since 2016.
In tandem, sustainability is a growing interest among consumers, particularly younger generations making purchase decisions aligned with their personal values. According to a 2021 Cargill survey, more than half of global consumers (55%) say they’re more likely to purchase a product with a sustainability claim on the label. In the U.S., 37% of consumers indicated they were more likely to do the same. That’s a six-point increase from 2019.
The role of farmers and the food industry
As a farmer, I feel a personal responsibility to grow affordable food. While there’s not much I or other farmers can do immediately to bring food prices down and address food scarcity, the long game is earning public trust in the technology that helps us produce enough food, more sustainably.
The story of agricultural innovation is an impressive one – continually working to improve is in a farmer’s DNA. There are so many success stories of incorporating technology on the farm today.
Consider the U.S. soy industry, seeing unprecedented demand for food, feed, fuel, and other products. Soybean farmers have increased production by 130% over the past four decades while using roughly the same amount of land. During the same time, we have also improved land use efficiency by 48%, irrigation water use efficiency by 60%, energy use efficiency by 46%, greenhouse gas emissions efficiency by 43%, and soil conservation by 34%. It’s all driven by technology.
In soybean fields across the U.S., farmers use precision agriculture practices like drones and field sensors to access real-time data about crop and soil conditions, predictive analysis software to provide guidance about crop rotation and planting and harvesting times, variable rate technology with sensors or preprogrammed maps to determine seeding, fertilizer, and crop protection application rates, not to mention biotechnology and gene-edited seeds that can improve nutrition and enhance resistance to weather extremes.
My family farm is located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, so sustainability is our number one priority. My husband Dave and I implement multiple sustainable practices like cover crops, fallow strips (planted areas to minimize soil erosion), and no-till farming methods on our fields. We also use biodiesel on all of our farming equipment. We’re proud to have received the 2018 Northeast Region Conservation Legacy Award for our efforts.
We also plant high-oleic soybeans, which are gene edited. It’s a variety of soybean that offers a sustainable, highly stable oil product for the food industry and other customers. The benefits of this oil include a neutral flavor, longer fry life, improved shelf life, and zero grams trans-fat, which lead to a more heart-healthy product for consumers.
Without public acceptance of these beneficial technologies and others used in the food industry, we’ll be limited in how we can continue to produce nutritious food that is affordable and sustainable.
The keys to acceptance
So how can agriculture and the food industry help earn acceptance?
The United Soybean Board partnered with The Center for Food Integrity to conduct research on what causes consumers to accept or reject technology in agriculture and identified driving factors that provide guidance on how best to engage.
To trust technology, consumers expect:
- Safety: Proof that food resulting from technology use is safe to consume
- Access to information: Information on food produced through technology is readily available so consumers can make an informed, voluntary choice
- Benefits: Benefits outweigh perceived risks
- Consistent food: Technology can help ensure a consistent supply of food
- Greater sustainability: Technology promotes greater sustainability by making more with a lesser environmental impact
If a consumer believes a technology in question meets those expectations, they’ll likely trust and accept the technology.
The research showed that acceptance may be dependent on whether the output of the technology is ingested. In other words, consumers are more concerned about pesticides and gene editing, which directly impact food, as opposed to technologies like drones or GPS systems.
Consumers also value third-party, independent oversight, along with having access to information from that third-party verifier.
The research provides specific guidance on what consumers seek to feel confident in technology. Are you communicating in a way that resonates? Consider the key drivers and approaches you can take to engage.
It’s encouraging that the research shows nearly two-thirds of the respondents have a very positive or somewhat positive impression of the use of technology when it comes to food. Younger generations in particular are champions of technology to address societal challenges.
While earning trust in technology may seem like an uphill battle, the study reveals a tremendous opportunity to engage on topics that are most meaningful to consumers as they form attitudes and behaviors. Meaningful engagement about the topics that matter most can help build consumer confidence in on-farm and food industry innovation, allowing us to address the most pressing challenges to our global food supply.
Belinda Burrier, Maryland soybean farmer, United Soybean Board Director