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Marianne Smith Edge – Building Consumer Trust Through Food Chain Transparency

February 3, 2021

Marianne Smith Edge believes consumers are craving healthier foods and want more trust and transparency in the food supply chain.

Marianne Smith Edge is a food, agriculture and consumer insight strategist and founder of Agri NutritionEdge where she serves as a translator between the consumer and the ag space to bring more food transparency to the food chain and improve food perception with consumers. She shares her insights on building trust with consumers by providing the security of safe and healthy food. 

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Marianne Smith Edge hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Tom:                          Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a planet of plenty.

                                    I’m Tom Martin with the latest in our agri-food outlook series: a visit with food agriculture and consumer insight strategist Marianne Smith Edge.

                                    Marianne is a sixth-generation farm owner in Owensboro, Kentucky. She also is a registered dietician and founder of The AgriNutrition Edge, a food and agriculture communications consulting firm. Marianne advances science and nutrition thought leadership on her firm’s website, And she joins us from Owensboro.

                                    Greetings, Marianne.

Marianne:                  Well, greetings and good morning to you.

Tom:                          Marianne, first, if you would, just tell us about your work as both a farmer and one who advises the ag community on matters of communication.

Marianne:                  Well, I grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Kentucky, so I definitely have strong roots in the dairy industry. And at this point, I don’t do day-to-day work in farming, but in the Owensboro area, my husband and I do own farmland, where soybean and corn are grown. So, I have definitely a vested interest and (am) very involved in the agricultural area.

I think, with that background, along with my (being) professionally trained as a registered dietician and having worked in consumer insights over the years, it really does allow me to interact across the food value chain on communications. And especially in the ag community, it’s so important to really remind and work with the ag community on understanding the need to communicate what is being done and has been done over the years on moving forward and preserving land and sustainability.

You know, to too many non-farm individuals, the perception of sustainability is almost viewed as a new concept, and even though we look at it in different lenses today, we know that, ultimately, we are where we are today because farming has always looked at the preservation of farmland for future generations.

Tom:                          Well, Marianne, this pandemic — it seems like we can’t talk about anything without talking about the pandemic. And, of course, it’s been with us long enough now for us as consumers to settle into some health and food consumption trends and habits. And I wonder: What’s your perspective on trends that have emerged from the conditions of the pandemic in 2020?

Marianne:                  Well, definitely, the emergence of returning to one’s own kitchen as a necessity, of course, has emerged. We saw, by the end of the last year, that over 80% of individuals said that they were cooking at home.

                                    But the good news is that we see that individuals say that, even though there is some cooking fatigue, is that they are continuing. And even though we were hearing about the “COVID 15” — somewhat like the college “freshman 15” game — is that over a third of consumers basically said that they were cooking more healthfully.

                                    From that, we saw that online shopping, of course, (which many people decided) to do through necessity, jumped at an all-time rate, at a much higher rate than any retail had ever anticipated. And as well as — when you’re looking at trends from food, we see that individuals definitely want to connect to more local sources — and many times, especially in produce, we saw a considerable jump in looking at organics.

Tom:                          Has this opened up opportunities or expanded the market for small farms, and particularly those that are involved in CSAs, in community-supported agriculture and, you know, the weekly order of greens and so forth that we’re able to get? Have you seen any increase in that area?

Marianne:                  Yes. We definitely have seen an increase in this particular area. And I can use a friend and a farm-to-consumer meat processing business in this area as an F1 example, and have written about it in some of my blogs, is that even though he had gained a good audience through farmer’s markets over the last few years, suddenly, that increase for wanting a locally produced and processed meat grew rapidly — especially in that April and May (period), when meat, all our meat consumption seemed to increase and availability wasn’t as prevalent. And the good news is that trend has continued.

So, again, folks really want to be able to connect to food and know where food comes from. And I think there’s also that sense of security and overall safety appeal — that if they know where their food comes from, there is an assurance that, one, it will always be there, and that it’s safe and I, you know, trust the person who is producing it.

Tom:                          Any other particular current active trends that are influencing food production?

Marianne:                  Well, the trend of sustainability will continue to increase — and sustainability, of course, can mean so many different things to individuals, but connecting the planet and personal health has continued to evolve, and it should. So, I think, many times, individuals are also seeing that, “If I eat locally, if I support my local producers, then I’m eating more sustainably.”

So, in that case, looking (at), as we move forward, on a global standpoint, sustainability and looking at food systems — even though it was an active trend, this whole global pandemic has really promoted more conversation. In fact, in September, there will be a UN Food Systems Summit in New York where, really, we’re looking at the whole concept of trends and regionalization, as well as global food systems. So, that will definitely continue the conversation.

Tom:                          Have transparency and the trust that it can engender, have those things taken on more importance among consumers these days?

Marianne:                  They have. And I think we have to recognize — and especially the agriculture community — is the importance of trust and transparency. The good news is that consumers do trust farmers, but sometimes, at the same time, there is a disconnect of communication and in transparency.

                                    We always have to realize that less than 2% of the population really has a direct connection to agriculture in these days. And so, therefore, it becomes imperative that the agriculture community really communicates what’s being done — you know, why are we doing what we are doing? Whether it’s using or not using antibiotics or how plants and animals are grown or whether or not we’re using gene editing or are genetically modifying individuals, explaining what it means to the farmer but also to the consumer is really important.

                                    And so, and we know the fact that if we’re not transparent (on our own), ultimately, we will be transparent, because of the amount of information that’s available on all levels. And so, it’s really important that you, (that) those who know, actually provide the information and open the area for those who don’t know to talk about it.

Tom:                          Well, perception can be everything in a lot of situations. And I noticed on your blog that you write about trust — and specifically, you cite a national poll conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future that finds that most people just don’t like industrial agriculture, but as you just mentioned, if just farmers are listed, the trust goes up. What are the dynamics behind these distinctions?

Marianne:                  Well, I do think, in many cases — and some of it is perceptions and what you hear, as well as in surveys — is that in some individuals’ minds, people imagine that farmers should be small, always small. And (they) give that illusion of kind of the “mom-and-pop” type of farmer.

                                    And so, unfortunately, sometimes, the label of industrial farm or factory farms are given to really large agriculture production (that) is still family-owned. And so, it is a misconception and (is) easily used by individuals who want to kind of frame that conversation, that big is not always good. And it seems like big food, big ag, gets a negative connotation, but at the same time, as consumers, we readily accept big technology and big food distribution systems.

                                    So, it is, it is a challenge. I think we constantly have to be able to distill the distinction and really talk about the percentage of (large) farms that are (family) owned and that farms, regardless of their size, you know, they have to be profitable if they’re going to be sustainable. And you know, larger — the larger the farm, sometimes, can actually be much more innovative in technology as well as sustainable practices. So, this is an area that we all need to continue to work on to break down some of those perceptions.

Tom:                          Well, continuing that perception thought, I wonder if it’s generally understood that to be a successful farmer, you have to be, in essence, a scientist. I mean, it can amaze the non-farmer to hear and read about what actually goes into the work of producing our sources of food. Do you think this “brain power” aspect could use a boost in the public dialogue?

Marianne:                  I do. I think, for some, the mental picture of farming is, many times — and, I, like anybody, love farmer’s markets, but you know, (with) the farmer’s markets, you get that close connection of food and individuals, and you — sometimes, you don’t always understand what goes into it, how much prep time and science has gone into it.

                                    I would say today, you know — and I can’t quote the exact numbers — but most in farming today definitely have a college education or (have) been involved in constant training.

                                    You know, my father was a dairy farmer over 51 years. And even though he was a World War II vet who did not go to college, you know, farming still — it was about his understanding the science. And so, I do think we forget that it’s very scientific, and if we really realize the technology and the science that has gone into farming over the last 50, 60 years, where we are able to only use the amount of, if needed, pesticides or chemicals or etc., based on a particular small area of the land, that we can really have an integrated pest management — we’re so much better at being able to control these inputs than, you know, than when I was growing up. And the amount of technology (and) computerization that goes into farming — to the average individual, I don’t think they do understand that, how much science goes into it. And especially as we continue to look at sustainability practices of reducing animal production or reducing greenhouse gas inputs, you know, we’re moving forward.

Looking at carbon farming, all the different technologies, it really does — it is about science and in knowing technology.         It’s a highly sophisticated profession that some, sometimes, individuals don’t regard it as such.

Tom:                          You’ve mentioned sustainability a couple of times. We hear so much about it now — even more so as the new Biden administration in Washington is rolling out its agenda. Where do you think agriculture will fit into that picture?

Marianne:                  I think agriculture is really the foundation of this picture. But the important thing — it’s going to be so important for agriculture to be at the table. I have been involved in some webinars, listening (as a) participant or discussing over the last couple of months, and globally as well as in the U.S.  And sometimes, during that conversation, people will say, “Well, yes, we need to have farmers involved.” And I am thinking, “Well, why aren’t they at the table?”

                                    So, I think it’s going to be really important that, you know, the basis of the whole concept of climate change and sustainability is that agriculture needs to make sure that we are inserted into the conversation early on. But it’s also important that we don’t keep just talking to ourselves. You know, we need to make sure that there’s an integration of conversations across the board, so those who might be making policy truly understand the unintended consequences, or also understand the positive solutions; either way.

                                    And so, agriculture, to me, is at the core of where we’re going — it’s just that we really need to be in the middle of the conversation now, not (only) when decisions are made.

Tom:                          I know that you’re involved in another conversation. You were named to the board of directors of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky a couple of years ago. And I know that your background includes owning a strategic nutrition consulting firm for the food and healthcare industries. Why is it important that that insight and perspective about farming and food production have a seat at that particular table?

Marianne:                  Well, it’s — earlier this week, we actually had a discussion of really bringing a group of partners across healthcare and the workforce to really look at how we can start drilling in on particular focus areas within Kentucky, to really start turning around (and) making Kentucky a healthier population.

                                    The reality (is that) we are at the bottom — not at the total bottom, but definitely at the, at the lower percentage of being healthful. During COVID, it really, it has exposed an issue we already knew: that the issues of health equity and inequity and how COVID has affected those with the higher percentage of culpability, such as diabetes, heart disease, etc.

                                    So, with my background, I do lead the strategic planning evaluation committee, and so, you know, we have to think broad-base. What are the factors that are, really, have created this, you know? At the core, it really is food, as well as access to healthcare.

                                    So, I feel like my very background, as well as my work in strategic planning over the years, can really work side by side with all the other colleagues in the health and (food) workforce to be very focused on the fact that there’s never been a better time, and it’s really important that we move forward and really identify what’s at the core and how we can reverse our health status in Kentucky.

Tom:                          Marianne, an article on your blog is titled, “Antibiotics: Cure or Curse?” And you cite concerns about antibiotic overuse, resistance, and how the two may be intertwined and how, for some, the blame is on animal agriculture, while for others, it’s on human medicine.

                                    Do you anticipate movement toward more antibiotic-free and organic production in 2021?

Marianne:                  Yes, even though I do think we will see more of it. What’s interesting — in a recent survey that was just recently released by the International Food Information Council Foundation in Washington, D.C., which I have previously worked (for) — what was interesting is they were really looking at influences on animal protein and plant protein decision-making. And about 25% of the individuals said that if a product was labeled “no antibiotic,” that really influences their decision, more so than “organic.”

                                    And so, we see that that’s typically with those that might be under the age of 45 and (with a) higher income. But, again, individuals are connecting that as a safety issue, and with COVID, there’s also been concern that, “Okay, what’s in my food or what’s being given to animal protein that, you know, is there any” — even though we know it’s not really been, that’s not necessarily true — but there is some thought within the public of, “Is there connection of how my food is raised, especially animal protein, as related to disease states or future disease states?”

                                    So, I do think we will continue to see consumer influence on looking for products that have no antibiotics. I think there’s a lot of discussion out there (about) whether, does that — is it as good for human health as (it) is for animal welfare? But antibiotics — third shift is so important across the human and animal continuum.

                                    I served on one health board a few years ago when I worked with the International Food Information, and so this is one area that really, as a human and animal health connection, that needs to continue to be looked at over the way. And with organic, even though it’s still a small piece of the total purchases, what was interesting is, last year, to your point, with COVID, we saw a much more significant increase of individuals who (are) buying especially organic produce.

Tom:                          Hmm. Well, what is on your shortlist of things you hope to see happen in agriculture and food production this year, in 2021?

Marianne:                  Oh, my shortlist. So, world peace. [Laughs] I think, in the shortlist, I keep bringing back to it, but (on my) shortlist is really bringing this whole discussion around sustainable food systems, what does that look like? And that’s a really large topic, but I think, in 2021, is that my shortlist is: what have we learned about the food value chain, the whole distribution system, during 2020? How can we use these learnings to really start looking at what needs to change? You know, what have we learned, and how can we use those learnings to really improve not only the safety (of) the distribution system but also improve trust and transparency and take that and learn what we can do better?

                                    So, really, even though it’s a very large shortlist, I think taking those where — this should give us an opportunity to really put the consumer and the farmer, along the whole other food value chain, (to put these) individuals together to really realize that, if we are going to be able to continue with having the availability of food that we have been so fortunate (to have), that we all need to come together to create transparency and trust among each of us.

Tom:                          That’s food, agriculture and consumer insight strategist Marianne Smith Edge, talking with us from Owensboro, Kentucky. Thanks, Marianne.

Marianne:                  Thank you.

Tom:                          Coming up next in our agri-food outlook series: Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales. We’ll get her views on building a more sustainable agri-food industry, working with governments on ag and trade policies and what she expects from the industry after a tumultuous year.

                                    I’m Tom Martin. Thanks for listening.

                                    Join us for the rest of the series as we reflect on how the agriculture industry adapted in 2020 and speak with experts on what’s in store for agri-food in 2021.

                                    Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.