I consume, you consume, he, she or it consumes. Whether we’re buying a coffee, a bacon sandwich or a new iPad, we are consumers of goods and services every single day. Indeed, as you read this, you are consuming electrical energy, internet data and/or printer ink and paper. Aside from the very few within our society who are genuinely self-sufficient, we are all consumers – a word that should not carry negative connotations. In a world where most of us consider that we need more than a jute sack and some potatoes dug straight from the earth, we consume, therefore we are. There’s a growing movement towards consuming less (food, resources, luxury goods), yet this doesn’t mean that consumption is a negative attribute.
However, some state that using the word “consumer” creates a divisive “us and them” situation within food production, where the agricultural industry is pitted against consumers in a battle for supremacy. Proposed alternatives to consumer include “customer”, “client” or, according to one tweet addressing this topic, “just call ‘em people, we’re all people”. There’s no doubt that we’re all people, but is this just ignoring the real issue in favour of a panacea?
I freely admit that I know nothing whatsoever about car manufacture. Would I be insulted by a marketing campaign from Toyota or Ford where they tried to better inform the consumer about the various ways that vehicles are made? Not in the slightest. I have a car, I am a consumer of vehicular goods, but (and this is where the semantics come into play) I am not a “customer” of either Toyota or Ford (proud Vauxhall owner). If I suspect that the car industry is full of evil overlords intent on exploiting child labour, destroying safe water supplies and inflating the price of replacement windscreen wipers, am I going to be mollified by being called a customer, client or person? No. Similarly, somebody who believes that dairy farmers rape and murder their animals or that large-scale agriculture is inherently undesirable is not going to change their views because they’re called a person rather than a consumer.
I have some friends within agriculture who genuinely believe that the consumer is their enemy. They consider that they should not have to change any facet of their farming system in order to fit with market demand, but that the ignorant (their words, not mine) need educating so that they can accept farming practices. Would changing the word consumer to customer, client or person facilitate a more diverse and accepting outlook from these producers? I think it’s highly unlikely.
It’s time to address the issues that matter. Why do we have such a disconnect between the consumer and the agricultural industry? How can we reach out to urban communities and help people to understand what happens on farms and ranches? How do we regain consumer trust where it has been lost, and enhance it where we already have a good reputation? Not easy questions to answer, but far more important to the future of food production than simply changing terminology. Without shared values and positive conversations, we cannot hope to enrich consumer opinions about agriculture – it’s time to start the conversation rather than hiding behind buzzwords and marketing hype.