Conversing With the Consumer: Q&A with Charlie Arnot

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Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, shares the fears of consumers and how the seed industry can better converse with consumers about their food.

ArnotSeed World: What are you currently reading and why?
Charlie Arnot:
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a book that defines and encourages a growth mindset, which helps people flourish. There is always an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, and embracing a growth mindset enhances life on both fronts.

SW: When you were a child, what was your dream job?
CA:
Early on I aspired to be a rural mail carrier because they got to drive from the passenger seat of the car! Later, I set my sights on becoming an international correspondent for a global news organization. Landing a job as a local radio news reporter in my home state of Nebraska is as close as I got. A coverage area that spans a hundred miles or so isn’t quite a global reach, but it was great fun. Life then led me in new directions and I’ve never looked back. It’s very rewarding working with the great folks across the food industry.

SW: Do you have a motto for work?
CA:
Focus on what’s important, build great relationships, make a difference.

SW: What do you think is the most important characteristic for a leader to have?
CA:
To have and communicate a clear vision, to assemble a talented team and empower them with the resources, direction and support to excel.

SW: What’s the No. 1 question consumers have about their food?
CA:
The number one question on their minds is “Can I trust you to produce food in a responsible manner?” Consumers today have a heightened interest in food and how it’s produced. While the agriculture industry tends to lean on facts about productivity and efficiency in touting its accomplishments, consumers simply want assurances that the farmer’s or company’s values align with theirs when it comes to producing safe food, protecting the environment and being responsible. Our consumer trust model demonstrates that making a connection through shared values is three-to-five times more important to earning trust than simply sharing facts. Consumer questions largely are ethical in nature: Yes, you can plant GMO seed, but should you?

SW: How do you think the seed industry can help in the conversation with consumers about their food?
CA:
The key is proactive, long-term transparent engagement about the values around seed production, especially when it comes to new technologies. Despite the benefits of GMOs, many consumers have a negative view of them. The introduction of gene editing provides a new opportunity to build trust in agriculture technology. It takes authentic transparency and engaging consumers on the broader benefits to society and the environment, not just production efficiency or profit, to build trust. It also requires a less defensive posture than agriculture has sometimes adopted. If the industry comes across as defensive or judgmental, the opportunity to build trust will evaporate. Consumers are skeptical, but they are also curious and highly interested in being engaged. The seed industry can help lead that conversation with the food system and other stakeholders who can influence acceptance of new technology.

SW: Any final advice for seed companies?
CA:
Today’s environment requires agriculture to build support among consumer influencers, branded food companies and retailers as well as regulators. I’ve heard some question whether a single producer or company can make a difference. The answer is unequivocally yes, especially in today’s world of multiple communications platform and extremely high interest in food production. Choosing not to engage is a license to others – including critics and activists – to tell agriculture’s story. Embrace the opportunity to engage in a broader conversation to build trust in your products, processes, people and brands.

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