John Dermody and Associates Pty Ltd. PO Box 185, Flemington. NSW 2129
The first principle I wish to discuss, and what is the fundamental basis of my presentation, is that it is the consumer who matters.
I am the consumer
It is my dollar
You have no automatic right to that dollar
If I am concerned about cleanliness I will not buy
I do not care how "right" the industry may be, it is what I think that counts - it is my dollar
When it comes to food, I want to do right by my family - food is to be safe, nutritious, clean and cost effective (this is not always true when you examine consumer behaviour, but no consumer will tell you otherwise)
"Traditional" Farming Versus Organic Farming
I do not see that these terms are either opposed or are mutually exclusive. It pains me to see some people publicly promoting or defending one cause or the other. In fact the two issues are on the ends of the same continuum and perhaps other terms such as SUSTAINABLE, CLEAN, CONSERVATION FARMING, etc, are somewhere on the same continuum, between the two ends. It is probably a matter of perception and subjective judgement just where those terms appear on the continuum. Does it matter? Well it appears to be important to the experts, important to the media (who like to scare the wits out of the Mums and Dads) and perhaps important to the convenors of conferences who like to assure attendance by having some controversial issues on the agenda.
Whilst all this is highly interesting, it is highly confusing to the consumer who wants to be sure that what he/she buys is safe. Who do they believe? We had in recent memory, Pamela Stephenson, who is known as an actress/comedienne and perhaps better known as Billy Connolly's wife, crying on television that she had been poisoning her children by feeding them apples which were "alive" with Alar. I say right here and now that I believe that Pamela Stephenson held these views genuinely, if perhaps misguidedly. She is not to blame because it is we, the industry, who have the obligation to provide sufficient information to our customers to allow them to make sound judgements on what they buy. The industry did not tell anyone about Alar and a whole host of other things we use in agriculture, so can we take offence when they do find out and reach a conclusion that may be flawed?
Nearly all manufacturers that I can think of, with the exception of agricultural producers, provide information about the contents of their products and how to use the products to their best effect. A can of soup has a list of ingredients and instructions on how to mix, heat and serve so that the consumer can be satisfied. When you buy a new car you receive a manual, sometimes an audio cassette and, with higher value cars, perhaps a video cassette - all designed to tell us about the contents (specifications) and how to use the damned thing to its best effect. Traditionally, in agriculture we have quietly gone about our business, told no one what we do but have, in the process, created some false expectations.
The Expectations That We Have Created
Because agriculture in this country rates with the best in the world as far as efficiency is concerned, we have created an expectation of:
• abundance and, therefore, cheapness
• top quality
• good appearance - in particular in fresh fruits and vegetables
• availability year round
• good storage characteristics
If we take the fresh fruit and vegetable industry as an example, this industry has created an even bigger problem for itself. The precious little promotion and advertising done always features the perfect fruit or the perfect vegetable. The expectation has been created that the goods on sale have to be perfect or near perfect to attract a reasonable price - i.e. perfect in appearance. You know that it does not matter so much to the consumer about taste.
In May 1990, an Australia-wide consumer survey was conducted on fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. The much maligned tomato was the subject of some of the questions because we all know, don't we, that tomatoes do not taste like they used to and we would all like to bring back the tomatoes that we ate in our youth. Guess what? In rating the important features of tomatoes, those surveyed rated:
firmness, no blemishes, redness before taste!!!
What have we created here? We have created a monster, a monster who, unfortunately, believes all the years of the industry promoting appearance and shelf life above taste.
Marketing Opportunities For Clean Agriculture
Are there marketing opportunities for clean agriculture? Let me pose the opposite question: "Are there marketing opportunities for dirty agriculture?" Quite obviously, the answer is no. There are only opportunities for clean agriculture.
Everyone wants "clean", whatever that means. Clean is a very subjective concept - to some it may mean organic with no chemical application whatsoever, to others it may mean minimal chemical application but chemicals applied correctly and in the most environmentally sensitive way possible, and to others it just may mean that food is safe to eat and fibres are safe to wear. Taking the widest definition of "clean" as is possible, it would be safe to say that all consumers seek clean agriculture.
But experience shows that the consumer only really becomes concerned during 'scares'. For instance, the Alar scare resulted in a drop in sales of all apples, but particularly red apples, for a period. Chemical scares tend to create a short-term focus on organics. Typically, overseas, in fresh fruit and vegetables a chemical scare tends to create a demand for organics that amounts to almost 15% of the market and then, after time, the market for organics settles down to about 5-7.5% of the market, on an on-going basis. I believe that this figure probably is about right for the demand for organics as higher demand tends to raise prices and consumer research shows that 66% of consumers would pay 10-15% more for organics, but only 22% would pay 40-50% more (and this was following the Alar scare in Australia). Other research done a little later showed that only 39% would pay more for organic as the effects of the Alar scare waned.
This same research, conducted in May 1990, showed that 77% of consumers believed that fresh fruit and vegetables are safe to eat but 72% would decrease fresh fruit and vegetable purchases if they became concerned about chemical residues.
So whatever we can make out of all of this as individuals with our own subjective beliefs, I am certain that the issue of cleanliness or food safety is always there, ready to spring to the surface during particular scares. In the periods between scares, the consumer is prepared to trust us until they have reason to doubt us. Therefore, it is my view, as a marketer, that in order to retain consumer confidence and repeat purchases there are only marketing opportunities for clean agriculture.
I am not an advocate for, nor an opponent of, organics. There is a market for organics which needs to be supplied. I am concerned, however, about those who tend to jump onto the organic band wagon hoping to take advantage of a gullible consumer and I therefore applaud those organisations which have developed and support proper certification schemes.
I am not an advocate for, nor an opponent of, the use of chemicals in agriculture. I am concerned, however, about those who tend to blindly rely on chemicals or who blindly support chemical applications.
I am an advocate of less reliance on chemicals, increased integrated pest management and a general reduction in chemical use. Whilst we use chemicals, I am an advocate of strict regulation and control of chemicals and of increased education of the industry and the consumer about chemical usage. Residue testing will need to continue as a reassurance for consumers and MRLs will need to be strictly enforced and developed where none currently exist.
I also believe that "clean" does not only involve residues in food, etc, but also involves the impact we have on the surrounding environment - ground water contamination, for instance, is a big issue. You can see the pressures that are building up on other manufacturers to produce cleanly. I can foresee the time when, if a manufacturer cannot produce cleanly (for example output water to be as clean as input water) then he will have to pay for the clean up. So it will be for agricultural producers.