Public perceptions of agriculture: What influences consumer choice?

I was recently invited to be the keynote speaker at Hart Field Day and I’ve been asked to share my presentation. It was a great opportunity to speak to so many growers and definitely the best view I’ve ever had for a talk!

Dr Heather Bray speaking at Hart Field Day, 15 September 2015. Photo courtesy of Grain Producers SA

Thank you to the Hart Field Day Board for giving me the opportunity to come and speak with you today.I am a researcher at the University of Adelaide looking at how people think about science in food production. For the next 20 minutes or so I’ll be sharing some of the results of our own research, and that of others, about how the general public in Australia thinks about agriculture and how this influences consumer choices. The reason for trying to understand these things is to enable agricultural producers and the broader community to have constructive conversations about how we want our food produced now and in the future.

So my talk covers 3 main areas:

  • What we know about public perceptions of agricultural practices and I will be focusing on grains production where possible
  • How the ‘ethical’ consumer trend is influencing choices
  • What are some of the knowledge gaps, challenges, and opportunities for engaging the public in a conversation about agriculture

But first, for those of you who haven’t read my page in the program yet, I’d like to briefly tell you how I came to be doing this work. My background is in agricultural science and animal science and I have worked as a research scientist in Australia and in the Netherlands.

I was a science communicator for over 10 years, working on education programs for schools and the community about the role of science in agriculture, and in particular the development of genetically-modified crops. While I was with the Molecular Plant Breeding CRC I would have spoken to thousands of people: farmers, teachers and school students, and the general public, about the science behind GM. I started to feel that people’s concerns about GM weren’t about the science as such, and I wanted to learn more about what lies behind people’s attitudes to science, agriculture and food. Food is cultural too and had special meanings in our lives. And that’s what led me to learn more about social research, and to the Food Values Research Group at the University of Adelaide led by Professor Rachel Ankeny

When I was a science communicator, the emphasis was on “educating people” because we thought that people didn’t like GM because they didn’t know much about the science. This was the dominant approach for all sorts of scientific issues at the time but we now have evidence that it just doesn’t work. Of course knowledge and information are important but it’s not the main thing that shapes people’s attitudes. Our attitudes are shaped by our personal circumstances: our culture, our history, our social networks and our values.

As I said before I want to cover 3 main points today, and the first of these is what we know about public perceptions of agriculture.

While it may seem that urban Australians are unsympathetic towards farmers and the challenges they face, there is some evidence that this is not the case. A poll conducted by ANU in 2009(1) and a couple of papers in the academic literature have looked at whether people think agricultural production and rural areas are important, how sustainable people think farmers are, knowledge of agriculture and trust.

So first, agriculture and rural areas, and the ANU poll found more than 8 out of 10 people surveyed thought that agricultural production, and rural areas, are important to Australia’s future.

In another study(2) almost 99 % of respondents indicated that agriculture is very important or fairly important for our future with similar results regarding the importance of rural areas. Younger age-groups are less likely to consider agriculture to be very important to the future but very few think it is not very important or not at all important. In this study almost 87% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that farmers are producing clean, safe food.

Now when it comes to research on views of environmental impact of farming practices is conflicting. For example in a recent survey of approximately 300 Brisbane residents(3), nearly a third of respondents disagreed with the statement ‘Generally, cropping land is in good condition’ and just over a third agreed with the statement ‘Current rural land management is unsustainable. However, in the previously mentioned ANU poll(1), just over half of respondents agreed that ‘Australian farmers are generally undertaking sustainable farming practices’ and in another study(2) just over three quarters of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that farmers are undertaking sustainable practices.

There has been one very recent study(4) that ‘tested’ Australian adults’ knowledge of on a range of multiple choice questions about agriculture. Specific knowledge of agriculture was found to be low in particular for questions related to aspects of environmental management and sustainability: water use by rice, decreased greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of self-funded natural resource management undertaken by Australian farmers. There was also uncertainty about production methods of the Australian grain and rice industries and the number of jobs in agriculture.

Some issues were better understood, for beef production and the authors of this paper suggested it may be because consumers have a more direct connection with that product. Interestingly, this paper also revealed high levels of support for farmers (similar to the previously mentioned studies), for example the percentage agreement that farmers do a ‘good’ job at contributing to Australian society, being educated about agriculture, being stewards of the land and managing the environment was all over 50%.

Lastly, trust is also important. It is interesting to note that in the Australian Reader’s Digest Poll(5) ‘farmers’ are consistently rated in the top 10 most trusted professions and in 2014 ranked equal 8th with veterinarians and air traffic controllers, all ahead of the police. Politicians came second last, ahead of door-to-door sales people.

Australians tend to have much higher levels of trust in the food system than in other places in particular in Europe. For example in a Flinders University study on consumer trust along the food chain(6), trust in ‘farmers’ was found to be the highest (93%), compared with supermarkets (66%), the media (54%) and politicians (44%). In another study(7) they found that consumers in rural areas, in comparison to those in metropolitan areas, were more trusting of food production which is a result of their direct experience with the food production sector. It is suggested that if consumers have a direct relationship to food production then their trust will increase.

This direct relationship with consumers is a particular challenge for the Australian grains industry.

All of these research finding that I’ve spoken about suggests two key things:

  • that the community has generally positive perceptions of farmers which are probably linked to high levels of trust.
  • These perceptions are not really linked to high levels of specific knowledge.

This does beg the question – What are the positive perceptions and trust based on? The short answer is that we don’t really know, and I want to come back to this later in my talk.

Ethical consumption and consumer choice

So this brings me to the second part of my talk our own research into so-called ethical food choices. This research was aimed at trying to understand consumer behaviour. What people thought about when they bought food and if they thought about the way that food was produced. We were particularly interested in people thought they made “ethical food choices” and why they chose to do that.

We know that Australians appear to be considering the implications of their food choices at an increasing rate. The rising sales of “organic” food, new product categories within supermarkets with “higher” standards of animal welfare, and the growth of farmers markets selling locally-produced food are all seen as indicators that consumers are “voting with their dollar” for more sustainable and ethical ways of producing food.

But are they really? And what is ethical food anyway?

At the core of the ‘ethical consumption’ movement is the idea is firstly to consider the impact of your choices on ‘others’ who count morally. These moral others are not ourselves and families, but may be other people, communities, animals or the environment, and then secondly that by making purchases that are ‘better’, (or avoiding things that may harm these moral others), consumers can drive change in food production systems. Within the marketplace, ethical food has become synonymous with categories such as organic, locally-produced, sustainable, humane, fair trade etc. Our interest in these categories is not whether the claims of being ‘better’ are actually true, but more in how consumers think about these categories, why they buy them (or not), and what ethical might meant to them.

For most ethical food categories, Australia seems to be about midway between the EU and the USA. We have much lower rates of vegetarianism that in the UK, for example and have very high meat consumption rates. Organic food sales are still relatively low compared with the UK. Our attitudes to genetically-modified food appear to be midway between the EU and the US.

Our research was undertaken in Adelaide over the last 3 years using focus groups and interview in shopping malls with consumers.

The main thing that we found is that there are a range of reasons why people may choose to buy an ‘ethical’ food over another, and that many of these don’t relate to being ‘better’ for that moral other. For example, many consumers told us that the products were better quality, they were “fresher”, tastier and more nutritious than other foods. Local food in particular was more likely to be chosen because of concerns about food safety and hygiene or to support local businesses (which is still arguably an ethical choice) than about the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to food transport.

Secondly we found that beliefs do not always equal behaviours. People told us that they found it difficult to purchase food along with what they perceived to be the ‘better’ choice for a range of reasons such as price, availability, complex labelling etc. Ethical food choices seem to be fluid and flexible: people will choose ethical in some circumstances and not others. Even those who create rules for themselves find that at times they do not make the best ‘ethical’ choices given the complex of reasons associated with food choice ways to break them. And people with lower incomes found it difficult to shop ethically, even if they felt they should. It does seem that the assumption that people are choosing ethical food to vote with their dollar is narrow at best and that ethical consumption is a complex issue.

Thirdly, the ethical food research and other work we’ve done on attitudes to GM foods suggests that the key attributes that people are looking for in food apart from taste and price are:

  • Locally produced
  • Healthy and nutritious
  • Unprocessed and ‘natural’
  • Free from “additives”

And this is where chemical use and other technologies such as GM become problematic for consumers – in part because they see them as risky for their health, but also because these things are associated with processed food, they are seen as additives, and less natural.

So the take home message from our own research is that people do want to make good food choices, but they are being asked to process complex information from a range of sources in a relatively short space of time and sometimes they just give up.

Consumers are influences by number of thing that have little to do with knowledge about a particular issue. Although knowledge is important, the ethical food research adds to a body of work that suggests that knowledge only one factor that shapes perceptions.

Consumer behaviour, what people buy, is not the best indicator for what they think.

So where to from here?

So far we know that consumers want safe, health and nutritious food, but seem sceptical of many of the technological inputs used in agriculture that are ultimately aimed at increasing efficiency.

We also know that farmers enjoy relatively high levels of trust with the broader community that’s not necessarily based on high levels on specific knowledge. 

In the Food Values Research group we have started to think about this issue as being about agriculture’s ‘social contract’ or ‘social licence to operate’ which is a concept beginning to gain traction within the agricultural sector. Originally used within the resources sector, it is a shorthand way to describe the freedom granted by society to individuals to use resources for their private purposes(8).

Although we don’t understand the specifics of agriculture’s social licence yet, we do know that trust is important for maintaining the social licence, as is shared values(9) and that a breach of the social licence can result in social outrage, as seen with the live cattle export issue(10).

What we think is happening, (and some other researchers are suggesting) is that the community is interpreting the rapid pace of innovation in the grains industry (so rapid that you all need to keep coming to field days like this to stay on top) as being related to the idea that economic drivers have led to a food system aimed at mass production and profit making that has changed too quickly for risks to be fully assessed(11). The technologies that many food producers access to improve the efficiency and sustainability of their operations, seem to be some of the technologies that consumers find problematic.

At the consumer end of things, grains seem to be going out of fashion. Concerns about gluten for example, low carbohydrate diets such as paleo are all linked to the idea that something is happening in grains production and ‘it used to be better in the past’(12).

At the moment, we don’t have good information on this – in particular with respect to the grains sector. However it is clear that the new media environment presents even bigger challenges for agriculture. We live in an age where information is everywhere. And not always high-quality information. Information that is out of date or not relevant to Australian production systems is at the community’s fingertips, and so it is tempting to think that the solution is to put the ‘right’ information out there such as the ‘facts’ about Australian agriculture and to ‘educate’ the community.

Now I agree that knowledge is important, but as I’ve already said today, knowledge is not the only driver of perceptions or consumer behaviour. At the moment Australian farmers, and in particular grains producers (although arguably less in SA), operate in a relatively free way. Trust is more important to continue operating without more regulation.

It’s time to move away from thinking that agriculture needs to ‘educate’ consumers to make better choices and begin to engage in a broader conversation about what we value about Australian agriculture. Identifying and communicating based on shared values is important. It’s also time for the agricultural sector to reclaim the story about values in food production.

So my take home messages today are firstly, that farmers still enjoy good community support in Australia (even if we don’t know what that’s based on).

Secondly that consumer purchasing behaviour is influenced by a range of factors but that ultimately consumers want safe, healthy and nutritious food, but are unsure how technological inputs influence these characteristics

And lastly, that while it might be tempting to fill this ‘gap’ with facts about agricultural production, the evidence suggests shared values are important for building trust, and understanding the values that producers and the broader community share about food production will be key to improving communication. Although we still need more research in this area to understand that these values are, we can already start to shift the conversation away from ‘educating’ the community about agriculture.

Why you do what you is more important that how you do what you do when talking to the general public about agriculture.


(1) McAllister I (2009) Public Opinion Towards Rural & Regional Australia Results from the ANU Poll Report 6 October 2009. Viewed online at

(2) Cockfield G & Botterill, LC (2012) Signs of countrymindedness: A survey of attitudes to rural industries and people,Australian Journal of Political Science 47: 609-622

(3) Witt GB, Witt KJ, Carter RW & Gordon A (2009) Exploring the ‘city-bush divide’: what to urban people really think of farmers and rural land management? Australasian Journal of Environmental Management. 16(3):168-180

(4) Worsley A, Wang W & Ridley S (2015) Australian adults’ knowledge of Australian agriculture. British Food Journal,117, 400-411

(5) Flynn H (2014) Trusted people 2014. Viewed online at

(6) Henderson J, Coveney J, Ward PR & Taylor AW (2011) Farmers are the most trusted part of the Australian food chain: results from a national survey of consumers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 35, 319-324

(7) Meyer SB, Coveney J, Henderson J, Ward PR and Taylor A (2012) Reconnecting Australian consumers and producers: Identifying problems of distrust. Food Policy, 37(6): 634–640

(8) Martin P & Shepheard M (2011). What is meant by the social licence? In J. Williams & P. Martin (Eds.), Defending the social licence of farming, Issues, challenges and new directions for agriculture (pp. 3-11). Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing

(9) Sapp SG, Arnot C, Fallon J, Fleck T, Soorholtz D, Sutton-Vermeulen M & Wilson JJH (2009) Consumer Trust in the US Food System: An Examination of the Recreancy Theorem. Rural Sociology, 74, 525-545

(10) Tiplady CM, Walsh DAB & Phillips CJC (2013) Public Response to Media Coverage of Animal Cruelty. Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics, 26, 869-885

(11) Kriflik LS & Yeatman H (2005) Food scares and sustainability: A consumer perspective. Health Risk & Society, 7(1), 11-24. doi:10.1080/13698570500042439

(12) Knight C (2012) “An alliance with Mother Nature”: Natural food, health and morality in low-carbohydrate diet books.Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment, 20, 102-122

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