Is the Customer Always Right?

My Generation

The vocal minority wants GMO crops gone. But if they don't understand science? Biotechnology? Regulatory process? Do they still get to make the rules?

Published on: July 18, 2013

At last month's Food Dialogues (recap here and here), North Carolina farmer Bo Stone told the story of a group of non-ag folks visiting his farm. They'd finished the tour and were about to leave when one individual looked at him and said, "Ok. Now, I think I understand this: the white eggs come from the hens, and the brown eggs come from the roosters. Right?"

Uh. No.

The story drew a laugh from the largely agricultural crowd, as it has each time I've shared it with farm audiences since then.

But seriously. Biology 101, anyone? Life Sciences? Anatomy? Any science course, whatsoever, ever? This is but one example of consumers lacking basic scientific knowledge, as it applies to agriculture and biotechnology. And why do they not know this? It's not like we're talking about many pounds of N, P and K to apply or something. We're talking basic reproduction. Is it because they didn't have a good scientific background in school? Or because they haven't learned to think critically about what they've learned?

I read a piece written by a chemist not so long ago, which of course I can't find right now, and I realized agriculture has a kinship to scientists: we are largely misunderstood, and by a populace that really thinks they understand. Or rather, they get their information from authors and marketers and conclude it's gospel.

But enough about the downfall of our society.

For years, conventional wisdom regarding customer service (and marketing) has held that the customer is always right. It sounds great, especially if you're the customer. For years, we have written in the agricultural press that we need to listen to our customers. Produce what they want. Niche crops? Grow them. (For a premium) Happy pork? Raise it. (For a premium)

Absolutely. It's a philosophy that makes a lot of sense. Right up until you throw science and biotechnology into the mix. Which led me to wonder, as I sat during the Food Dialogues, is the customer always right? When they think brown eggs come from roosters, and when they describe biotechnology crops as the following: "A seed that's genetically mutated has been injected with an obvious chemical to purpose the fruit to basically add whatever trait that isn't natural," and when, in short, they really don't have a clear understanding of biotechnology, research, scientific study and rigorous testing, should they be given the opportunity to decide whether GMOs are allowed in America or not?

I would like to think cooler heads would prevail. That, given the continuing world population climb and the pressures on everything from fertilizer to water supplies, common sense will prevail and production agriculture will be allowed to continue doing what it does best: innovating, increasing efficiency, producing more food on less land, and growing the most crops in the parts of the world best suited for it. (There's a reason why it's called the Corn Belt, folks.)

But then I think back to our trip to Sweden, where we learned much about that country's commitment to food and agriculture, to sustainable production, to humanely raised meat. It all sounded really, really good. Right up until I talked to farmers and ag journalists. As it turns out, when Sweden decided it would mandate very stringent animal care regulations, many livestock producers decided it wasn't worth it. They couldn't make a profit and left the business. Today, Sweden imports a large percentage of its meat from Denmark, where it's raised by farmers who aren’t held to the same high standards Sweden holds its own farmers. Sustainable? I can't imagine so.

Sweden's meat model shows it is possible to follow this rabbit trail to a un-sustainable future. It's the scenario many agriculturalists conjure when we consider raising crops in non-biotech world. Less production, less efficiency, fewer bushels, more crop loss.

The American farmer feeds 155 people today, compared to 26 in 1960. It takes half as much land to feed a single person today, compared to 45 years ago. Much of that occurs with thanks to biotechnology.

Are we willing to give that up? Should we be willing to give that up? Is the customer – who may not understand what a peer-reviewed study actually is – always right?

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  1. K. Brooks says:

    Holly, you make a couple of mistakes. Don’t take a dumb consumer comment and make that indicative of consumers as a whole. Those who voice concerns are actually quite educated as a group. Imagine some of the dumb comments a farmer could make about a nuclear power plant going in right next to their farm. I know some pretty dumb farmers. I know some really smart ones as well. Farmers and professionals have what they see as a vested interest. Naturally that creates a conflict with the public. Farmers and professionals ASSUME that there is a whole lot of testing of products prior to release. The testing isn’t as great as you think on the consumer health end of things. Much is anecdotal. Commodities groups are guilty of beating the drum of funders. Money from research doesn’t 100% come from check off. It comes in part from industry that stands to gain. Vilifying consumers will continue the antagonism. As long as things such as the President of a Midwest Land Grant University sits on the board of a major bio/chem company….a person (consumer or farmer) would have to be “not smart” to think there isn’t some influence going on. Farmers have a vested interest in seeing that real and extensive testing is going on. Most cannot cite any real study, know where the funding is coming from and cite the actual results. The stakes are too high to knotbecome informed.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      K., thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, the anecdote I shared is but two of many; it is not an isolated opinion but is, instead, very indicative of the overall agricultural education level of this country. We are looking at a generation that is further removed from the farm than any other in the history of time, and they're poised to be the ones making the rules for all of us. Several panelists at a recent Food Dialogues forum shared that there have been more than 600 studies done, confirming the safety of biotech crops, and more than 200 of those were conducted independently from any corporate or otherwise "tainted" money. So the argument that we haven't studied biotechnology enough is a slim one. Further, I don't think we should vilify consumers either, but we have to be willing to call a spade a spade: over and over in my conversations with consumers, they reveal how little they know about how crops are planted, how they reproduce and even how farmers procure and plant seed. The good part is that many really do want to know, and they want to learn from farmers - not from the latest marketer or book author.

      • K. Brooks says:

        Holly, you are being disingenuous by citing public misunderstandings to pander to your perceived audience. I do challenge you to find and report back on studies of the impact of bio technology on public health, particularly before a product is released that is not anecdotal. I’m not against gmo, not at all. I am against corporate influence in “unbiased” studies. When you find these studies, please let us know the funding source and whether it is prior or anecdotal in nature. You may be surprised. I’ve been involved in a USDA funded land grant study that was not released because the “desired” results were not obtained. In re to public education, I would challenge you to focus on farmer education. Find out how many farmers understand the “science” behind bio tech. Most farmers don’t really understand chemistry and cannot identify modes of action for herbicides. Most don’t know their cost per acre or per unit of production. Most don’t have a marketing plan. Most can’t do a basic price guestimate based on supply and demand figures. Before criticizing the general public with silly anecdotes, dig deeper into the audience you serve. You will be surprised at the results. What a lot of people don’t realize is how commercial farmers worldwide have blown past US farmers in education levels and base science and economic understanding. Been involved in international farmers coming to the US for a long time and the reaction is pretty typical. They think of the average US farmer being a lot like the consumer you are poking fun at. Ask the average farmer is they know the soil type and productivity index of their land. Ask them if they can calculate yields based on erosion damage on their soil using NRCS web soil survey. Ask them if they even know what that is. Your pandering shows exactly why the general public is suspect of US farm producers touting corporate positions. Someday farmers will be harmed financially by what often goes on from the so-called studies you talk about. I would really enjoy a real article where you don’t just talk about “studies” but actually dissect one.

  2. April says:

    Most everybody I know who is against gmo's being brought into the food supply just wants one thing: THEY WANT PRODUCTS CONTAINING GMO's LABELED AS SUCH. That's it. They don't want them banned, the want to be given information that will allow them to choose, or not choose, GMO foods. But, agriculture interest groups, big and small, all over the country, put tons of money into making sure that consumers don't have this choice. Hmmmmmmm....wonder why?

    • Holly Spangler says:

      April, this is an excellent point. Are you familiar with Jayson Lusk, a food economist at OK State University? I had a conversation with him recently and we talked about this exact idea, but he offered the economist perspective: what happens when we label GMOs? A label incites fear, he says, where there may not be understanding ("wow, I've heard people talking about GMOs - they must be bad. Better not buy that.") That increases demand for non-GM. That causes food companies to buy more non-GM crops. They have to offer a premium to farmers to raise them, because they are (in general) more susceptible to disease, pests and risk. That raises the price of the grain, which raises the price of food. For everyone. Not just the upper middle class folks who demanded it in the first place, but also for the single mom who's trying to raise her kids. We have to appreciate the consequences of our choices/demands, and we have to consider whether we're willing to throw a highly-studied technology under the bus in favor of fear and misinformation. And I think, really, you do have a choice, don't you? If you want non-GM, you can buy organic, which is very clearly labeled (and priced) as such, and is available in a wide array of foods. The European model is useful here: they have banned/labeled GM and have far fewer food choices than we do. Our groceries are loaded with choices.

  3. Jodi M Venema says:

    Holly, enjoyed this post very much. Keep up the good work!

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Thanks, Jodi - I appreciate it!

    • Renfield8 says:

      Wow... I don't know a dumb farmer. In fact I have to admit a jealousy, because even as children they know what they want to do with their lives. I changed majors in my College Education 3 times, and still don't feel fulfilled in my job, but any Farmer's kid loves his/her chores, and knows what he/she wants to do their whole lives. Holly, I Have to admit that little Jenna has forgotten more about farming than I will ever know. I think it only makes sense that the Farmers make the plans for the future of GSO in crops. GSO is another buzzword bringing bad connotations to most consumers (I see them all). GSO seems to be thrown in the same Garbage Bin as the GSO Salmon, which is sometimes King Salmon crossbred with Eel. A couple other Buzzwords intended to scare. Cancer was mentioned as a threat, but no references or tests were mentioned. Eel/Salmon which might someday threaten the natural habitat of other Salmon should not be thrown into the same bin as GSO Crops, which have been developed successfully, I might add, for over 90 years. Hybrid corn is getting better and better, and it's a very controlled process (it takes 7 years to make a hybrid, according to Doubet from Doubet Seed Company in Hanna City. Making Corn more disease resistant, more resistant to cutworms, making bigger ears of corn, or sweeter-tasting corn is not a threat to the ecosystem, or a threat to anybody's health. Sadly, I am not a moron, but completely ignorant of farming, and when talking to farmers, I feel incredibly left out, because they are having these absorbing and engaging conversations among each other, and I feel incredibly left out. Should I, who know more about the doll that Jenna carries, than the show stick (what is it, and what does it do? Please don't answer... I can use my imagination) have the ability to change farming decisions and tell them they can't improve their crops, so they can feed more? I'd be cutting my own throat. I'd love to know more about farming, but I'll never know enough to be a part of the farming crowd, and God Forbid someone like me having any hand in deciding the future of farmers. I admire Holly's views, and praise her for making her point without being pejorative toward those who are truly ignorant (maybe even more ignorant than *I* am). If Farmers are making their views known publically online (or elsewhere), so I will know how to push lawmakers around(did I actually say that) , I'd love to hear where I can find out more, and be a part of the democratic process. But I won't do it out of ignorance. Thanks for your efforts. I enjoy them, and they are deeply appreciated. Ken

      • Holly Spangler says:

        Thanks, Ken - I appreciate your efforts!

  4. Phillip Swartz says:

    Holly, In your April 26,2013 blog you get quite upset with consumers for insinuating that farmers "are a bunch of morons", yet in today's blog post you are insinuating that consumers are a bunch of morons. Everyone has access to essentially the same data, studies, blogs, peer-reviewed literature, etc. Anyone can cherry-pick the "science" in order to support a particular perspective. Quite frankly, and to use your own words, I'm "Tired of the accusations, tired of the misinformation, tired of the same old tired arguments". I'm still waiting for someone to please explain how annually planted grains (conventional or organic) will "feed the world" while approximately 50 million Americans are going hungry, right now, this very day. I think the bottom line is that our current system of food production is not designed to feed everyone - it is designed to make money, right now, this very day. And money can be fun, right? But you can't eat it. There are a few pioneering individuals looking at complex perennial cropping systems which have the potential to collect much more energy from the sun and turn it into much more nutrient dense food with a much higher yield of usable calories per acre. Perennial systems need only be planted every few years or every few generations which can eliminate a lot of the problems associated with erosion and herbicide usage. There is no single solution to 'feeding the world' and our current production method is obviously not achieving that goal by itself.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Phillip, thank you for your comments, and I'll add that I never intended to insinuate anyone is a moron. Many consumers are ignorant, however, and in the very best sense of the word, in that they just don't know what farmers do and why they do it. They don't know about hybrids and genetic lines and plant breeding. The good news is that many want to learn, and from farmers. The bad news is that many have decided to get their information from marketers and book authors. This is a generation that is further removed from the farm than any other in the history of time, and we need to be conscious of fact that they will be (and are already) guiding the regulatory process in this country. And I very much concur with Lea's comments regarding food security and food supply in America. As a whole, this is a great conversation to be having.

    • Lea says:

      "50 million Americans are going hungry, right now, this very day." There is no place in this country where grocery store shelves are empty. There is no place in this country where people stand in line with stacks of money waiting for a supply truck to bring food so they can feed their families. If someone pays $10 for a loaf of bread, it isn't because there is no other bread available to them. Americans go hungry every day, not from a lack of available food, but from a lack of available funds. You may argue that the current method of grain production drives up the cost of grain and pushes food product prices up out of the range of affordability for Americans. You have argued that 'politics and false economies created by price supports and unfair trade agreements' have pushed food products beyond the range of affordable for many Americans. I can't say one way or another if you're right on those subjects. I do believe that if there was a cheaper way for farmers to meet demand, I'm sure they would do it. It lowers their bottom line after all, and that's just good business. What I can speak about is my experience with hunger in America. People are going hungry, slowly dying of malnutrition, and not eating enough 'nutrient dense' foods, but not for the reasons you think. I have watched "hungry people" pass up whole grain, nutrition rich food and pick up sliced white bread, donuts and frozen pizza. Not because I was in the grocery store and they were choosing the most affordable food available to them. No, I was stocking the shelves of my local food pantry that serves approximately 1300 households every month. That food is free. Fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grain pasta and lean meats cost exactly the same amount as a box of cupcakes or a frozen pizza. Why do they do that? I have no idea. Frankly it isn't any of my business to ask. I believe that sometimes its more comforting to eat something easier to prepare or more traditional. I believe that some are just uneducated on what is good for them and what isn't. I think some are uneducated on how to prepare nutritious meals. I'm working on figuring that question out and trying to find the solution, but that's not my point with this reply. Farmers aren't to blame for those 50 million Americans you're so worried about. They are doing a bang up job of meeting the demand for food in this country. If you're concerned about the nutrition that people put into their bodies, if you're concerned about children without any food at all on their kitchen shelves, I have an answer for you. Stop point fingers. Stop passing the blame and accusing. Also stop expecting someone else to fix the problem. If you're truly concerned about hungry people, step away from your computer, go take boxes of nutritious food out of your pantry and put it in the hands of a hungry child. That is the only way we are going to change anything in this country; one person helping another person.

      • Holly Spangler says:

        Excellent points, Lea. Why people make the choices they do is difficult to understand.

      • Phillip Swartz says:

        I'll state it very clearly, again: I didn't blame farmers. You're reading something into my comment that just is not there. My main point was to highlight the double standard of getting upset with a particular group about their tactics for debate but then turning around and using those tactics against them. As I stated in my previous reply, American farmers are extremely efficient at producing yield of crop per acre. However, they are not as efficient when it comes to producing food - only a fraction of the calories produced by our staple grains actually end up in an American stomach. Again, I'm not blaming farmers, this is a systemic problem. Also, there is a lot of waste on the fresh vegetable and fruit side of production but that is a whole other topic. It's a complex problem and I'm still waiting for someone to explain how our current system of food production will feed the world when we can't even feed every American. P.S. I don't believe nutritious food comes in a box that can sit on my pantry shelf for months, so I donate fresh vegetables and fruits from my market garden to the local food bank.

    • Beth says:

      I get upset when consumers are angry about farmers making money. If a small business owner in the city works hard and is successful, making a healthy profit, he is not villified for it. Why are farmers? My dad is a farmer and he does try to make money and grow his business, every year, so that he can provide for his family, and go on a vacation, the things that every business owner is trying to do.

      • Holly Spangler says:

        Beth, this is just my two cents but I think people are uncomfortable about farmers and profits because it doesn't fit their romantic notion of a farmer as a devotee of the land - so devoted that they wouldn't feel the need to make money. Of course, the notion has romanticized history straight from the equation; even a quick read of Little House on the Prairie reveals that the original prairie farmers had to grow enough to not only feed themselves but to sell/trade in town for other goods. But the simplified notion is easier, especially when combined with our modern movement to vilify corporations. I think, as a whole, America is all in favor of making money, so long as it's me and not everyone else. :)

      • K. Brooks says:

        Beth, people are not upset about farmers making money....and recently in general...lot's of it. What they are upset about are the entitlement subsidies and if they knew the subsidization, the heck of a deal they get on crop insurance.

    • Lori Dyck says:

      50 million people in the States are going to bed hungry and you are blaming farmers, how about looking at what happens to our crops when it leaves the bin. There is so much waste, product not stored properly then throw out no prepared properly then thrown out, too much food offered to people that have the money to waste and it all go in the garbage bin at the end of the day, this has nothing to do with the farmers!! We do grow nutrient dense foods take oats for example, they are shipped to a processor that makes them into a over processed, crappy breakfast cereal, where a bowl of hot oats is cheaper and a awesome nutrient dense food!! This is one example of what happens to our crops after they leave the farm and have nothing to do with us what so ever!! We grow more than enough food for America it's not our fault if you don't know what to do with it!!

      • Holly Spangler says:

        Thanks for your comment, Lori, and I agree that food waste is an incredible problem. And that oats are awesome. Corn once was, too, before some guy made a documentary about it. :) But it turns out, we still maximize every ounce of every kernel we produce. Same for soybeans. And I cannot reply to Phillip's comment below but will note here that those topsoil numbers are vastly incorrect, and equating urban topsoil $ for farmland is comparing apples and oranges. At the going rate of central IL farmland - in the neighborhood of $14,000 an acre - no one's about to waste anything. No till, strip till, vertical tillage, cover crops and more - farmers are constantly looking for better ways to conserve soil. Could they do better? Absolutely. But perennial cropping systems are, at best, only part of the solution when you're talking about 26 million acres of IL farmland.

      • Phillip Swartz says:

        Did I vilify or blame anyone in particular? No. However, you're implying that it is the consumers' fault for not properly using the food? I blame politics and false economies created by price supports and unfair trade agreements. Did I say making money is inherently wrong? No. The average topsoil loss per acre of farmland in the US is around 20 tons. A 20 ton load of topsoil for your yard will cost about $400, so farmers who are concerned about profit are losing up to $32,000 per 80 acre field, each year. Will the next generation be able to afford a vacation? Don't conflate 'making money' and 'feeding the world' - those two goals have different means. Did I say annual grains are not nutrient dense? No. I am saying that foods grown in a perennial polyculture system can be more nutrient dense. Annual grains can be part of that system but they are not the sole answer.