At D2D, we find Jack’s insights on consumers interesting and unique. He brings an informative perspective about our choices in the grocery store. Jack searches into the questions that drive our decisions in the marketplace, such as:
- How do consumers make decisions on their food choices?
- How does the brain deal with too much information from constant marketing and media overload?
- How can we tell the difference between a perceived health risk versus an actual risk?
In the following interview with Jack, we scratch the surface on some of these curious topics.
D2D: How did you shift your focus from global conservation to understanding consumer food choices?
Jack: I was stationed in Mekambo, Gabon when I worked for the Peace Corp. in Africa. As I lay awake at night listening to the rain patter on the tree canopy, I vowed to protect these beautiful forests. Fast forward to my work with the State Department, it became clear that one of the biggest impacts on our environment is agriculture. My hero is Nobel Prize Winner Norman Borlaug who started as a forester, yet he saved more forests as an agronomist.
What is your personal mission?
The agricultural system has to grow 60% more food by 2050 using less land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Technology is key. Unfortunately, we love innovation almost as much as we despise change. There is no place we dislike change more than in the food we eat. This has led to a polarization of understanding about the role of science and technology in sustainably feeding the world.
I would like to de-escalate the tensions in the food system to save the planet. There is not just one answer and one production method. We need diversity of thought and diversity of methods. It is also important for the farmers to have the freedom to farm the way it works best for their land.
As I learned about science, agriculture, and the potential to solve these problems at the State Department, I was taken aback by the lack of public support for agricultural technology. I went on a journey to discover how to educate consumers on food science and agricultural technology. I spoke to thousands of people in dozens of countries. What I learned was: If you lead with the science, you may lose with the science. Science tends to polarize the conversation. This led me to study behavior science, psychology, and consumer trends.
Why do we, as food consumers, not trust research and science?
The lack of experience with food production has led to a trust lost between food producers and the public. Consumers are not convinced that companies have their best interest at heart. But this is not just food companies – there is a lack of trust in many organizations across the sectors. The internet has accelerated this because we get information and answers from different places. It can be liberating – like getting a second opinion – and on the other hand, make people more skeptical on any advice they are given.
“Consumers have never cared more, nor known less, how their food was produced.”
This has led to the desire for transparency. Where does our food come from and whom do we trust? Animal welfare, the environment, production practices, and food safety are all topics that the consumers wants to understand.
How does the consumer know whom to trust?
We only ask questions if we don’t trust and never ask questions if we do trust. Most people don’t ask the necessary questions. For instance, are you concerned about local issues, global issues, or both? Are you willing to change your mind based on new information? What makes you trust an organization? Why do you not trust the information source? These are the types of questions to ask yourself before making a decision.
In your talks, you mention the difference between Hazard and Risk. Can you explain how that applies to food?
A hazard is something that can cause harm, and risk is something that does cause harm. A shark in the water is a hazard, but not if we are standing on land. Even if you are in the water, it is a low risk (1 in 3,748,067). Most consumers are hard-wired to know hazard. If it can hurt us, we immediately believe it will hurt us. Risk is a statistical concept.
Consumers mainly perceive risk by communication through various organizations such as businesses, governments, and NGOs. Governments are good about communicating real risks – like coronavirus. They do not focus on hazards. Through marketing and the internet, consumers are flooded with information on hazards that might hurt us.
Regulators think of risk like this: “Hazard multiplied by Exposure equals Risk”. My formula is now: Hazard times Media Exposure equals Perception of Risk. Let’s take Hint water as an example. It is non-GMO, gluten free, sugar free, sweetener free, preservative free, vegan, no MSG, nuts, soy, and the bottles are BPA-free. This leads the consumer to believe these items are in most of our foods and will hurt us. And, with all these perceived ‘risks’, we grow fearful of our food.
When you say that people don’t see reality as it is, what do you mean?
Often our brain sees things as we want to see them. It uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, but often that can lead to the wrong result. Take this chart below: you automatically think there are two hues of blue, when in reality, it’s all the same hue.
Also, there is confirmation bias, which is the root of polarization. We look for information consistent with our beliefs and avoid information that is inconsistent. Our brain also uses word association as a short cut. For instance, with the word ‘natural’, we think of positive thoughts, such as fresh, home-baked bread and honey. We don’t think of Ebola and Zika viruses – which are also natural. We tend not to support man-made things because our brain wants to think of things it understands.
In general, we don’t really understand food safety additions, such as food additives and food preservatives, so we tend to avoid them. For instance, many people avoid chemicals in their foods, but what many don’t realize is that foods are made up of chemicals, whether natural or man-made.
What kind of articles can we look forward to reading?
I will be writing on subjects about consumers. For example, how decisions are made; why we fear the food we eat; and how powerful words change our feelings. There will be a series of 10 articles on the Futurity website. Some of these ideas were covered in a TED Talk I gave last year.
We look forward to summarizing Jack’s concepts on Dirt to Dinner in the future.
Interested in Jack’s perspective on another topic? Email us at [email protected]!