Nothing to Hide? Then Join the Conversation and be Transparent About Technology

owenEditor’s note: This is Owen Roberts’ Real Talk, Real Action column. Each week, Owen will offer his insight into how farmers and the agricultural industry can participate in the rural- and ag-related discussions going on around them. Contact Owen at [email protected] or on Twitter at @TheUrbanCowboy.

Transparency – that is, being forthright, ethical and proactive about your actions, issues and activities — has become the brass ring of the agri-food merry-go-round.

Everyone in the sector is reaching for it, to promote understanding, generate trust and avoid accusations of secrecy among the public. It’s a well-intentioned, admirable goal.

But is transparency the same for farmers as it is for consumers?

Maybe not. Earlier this week, veteran meat sector advocate Daren Williams of the US National Beef Cattlemen’s Association raised the thorny issue at the Agricultural Media Summit in Buffalo, NY.

He used new technology introduction as an example. Consumers have a growing interest in food production details, and clichés such as best and safest don’t cut it anymore.

That’s prompting the agri-food sector to make adjustments in its approach to public relations, to try explaining to consumers production hows and whys, a lot of which includes technology.

But when should that explanation take place? Can you really claim you’re being transparent about technology, even simple technology and its byproducts, if you announce its use once it’s in the field or marketplace?

Ethics would suggest you have that conversation beforehand. Who knows, but it might prevent you from getting burned. Williams was a point man for the pink slime controversy, which he now calls a “volcanic eruption,” and hit the beef industry right between the eyes. For years, consumers paid little attention to finely textured beef trim products and the technology used to produce them.

And neither did the food sector – it was pretty established and effective way to use trim. But that all changed when someone offhandedly described the product as pink slime. Those two words were enough to turn that part of the meat sector upside down.

Williams urges farmers to become part of the transparency process, and to use social media to do it. Farmers have high credibility with information-hungry consumers; social media is an easy-to-use way to deliver it. He mentions blogs a great deal – they have substance and give users and readers ample opportunity for meaningful conversations.

When it comes to transparency and some forms of technology, the horse has already left the barn. Like finely textured beef, it’s out there. But it’s not too late to join the conversation about any form of technology or farming practice – and specifically, why you need it. People are watching, reading and listening.