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12.11.2019 - Manuel Ermann

Is digitalization the 'magical solution'?


Anyone who feels connected to agriculture can currently see this on Facebook by adding their profile picture: "No Farmers. No Food. No Future". At the same time, farmers are erecting green crosses to commemorate their precarious situation. The frustration in agriculture is great! Frustration about unobjective accusations from parts of society, about contradictions in expectations and actual buying behaviour. And frustration about a partly inconsistent and populist agricultural and trade policy.

Everyone in our society seems to want to have a say - even without the necessary competence. Practitioners do not feel taken seriously. If they want to enter into dialogue, they come across more and more people with ready-made opinions. The farmers' demonstrations of „Land schafft Verbindung“ were a clear signal: Listen to us at last!

But are Facebook photos, green crosses and tractor corsairs the way out of the misery? Letting of steam is good and right, but we'll need solutions as well! In this context, opportunities are often related to digitization, but mostly without becoming specific. In the following we want to explain the causes of the conflict from our point of view and discuss the opportunities of digital technologies on the basis of several hypotheses.

Society no longer trusts agriculture. The frustration about this is deeply rooted in agriculture. Digital technologies can help to regain confidence. (Photo: Heitplatz)

No more trust in public sector entities


The conflict between society and agriculture is due to the loss of trust. Large sections of society no longer seem to believe in modern agriculture. However the agricultural sector is not alone in this: whether major parties, the churches, globally active companies or associations - many institutions are affected by the erosion of confidence.


The importance of trust is not diminishing, it is increasing. However, it is moving away from central institutions to distributed networks: Citizen movements instead of major parties, producer-consumer communities instead of large corporations, customer evaluations instead of product tests, influencers instead of TV advertising.

Trust is shifting towards the personal relationships of the pre-industrial age, before mass media, mass consumption or mass animal husbandry. The only difference is that digital technologies no longer bind us to the boundaries of local connections.

Many Facebook users are currently modifying their profile pictures with the addition "No Farmers. No Food. No Future." (Screenshots: Facebook)

Causes for the shift in trust

We see three main reasons for this shift in confidence:

  1. Whether diesel scandal at VW, data scandal at Facebook or child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church: Often people that are responsible do not have to bear the consequences of misconduct to an appropriate extent.
  2. The Internet and the associated democratization of access to information is shattering old hierarchies: with just a few clicks, anyone can become an alleged expert on any subject.
  3. The algorithms of social networks show users above all information they and their friends "like". This results in so-called insular behaviour, in which we get to read the opinions that we are close to anyway. There is hardly any fair discussion of counterarguments. The simple answers of the insular behaviour are more convenient for many users than dealing with topics in all their complexity.

Agriculture faces Morton's fork

The shift of trust away from institutions towards distributed relations is also evident in agriculture: "Agriculture" as a virtually institution has a miserable image. The profession of a farmer, on the other hand, is highly regarded. This is shown by current surveys. Even in personal conversations with people from outside the sector, the bad image is often not perceptible in this drastic manner.


Unfortunately, personal goodwill is of little help: politicians and the media continue to discuss modern agriculture in general terms and in a simplistic way. The loss of trust in institutions in general seems to make it almost impossible to pull our industry out of the image swamp.

Advocating communication based on trust and digitization: Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig (Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences) and Dr. Manuel Ermann (Agricon) are members of the DLG Public Relations Working Group.

Trust: Positive relationship despite uncertainty

In order to find a solution, we have to understand three fundamental interrelationships, as confidence researcher Rachel Botsman explains:

What is trust? Trust is like a bridge that helps people bridge the gap of uncertainty about other people, organizations or brands. If the bridge collapses, an attempt is made to "fill" the gap with transparency. This is based on the assumption that complete enlightenment leads to trust. But trust is exactly the opposite: there is a positive relationship despite uncertainty. In an ever faster changing and quite contradictory world it is not possible to inform people continuously about all details. We must build lasting trust instead of creating complete transparency.

Who do we trust? Trustworthiness is based on four characteristics:

  • Competence: Does a person, organisation or brand have the ability, knowledge and experience to do a job?
  • Empathy: The ability to empathize with the target group and respond to their interests and goals.
  • Integrity: Do our motives and interests match what we say and do?
  • Reliability: How consistent is what was promised kept? It is easy to imagine that "black sheep" in agriculture torpedo this quality. Transparency and openness can make a contribution here.

What changes will the transition from institutional trust to distributed trust bring? Institutional trust flows upwards via institutions: to experts, managers or strong brands. The current shift in trust is turning this upside down. Because distributed trust flows directly between individuals at the same level. This is made possible by social networks, digital platforms and new systems such as blockchain. And that brings us to the potential of digital technologies.

Hypothesis 1: Measuring and communicating the benefits of digital farming


If digital technologies are to increase trustworthiness, they must address societal goals and make compliance and progress towards these goals measurable.


Previous solutions in arable farming were primarily aimed at reducing costs, increasing yields and simplifying processes on farms. This often results in ecological advantages. However, they are rarely communicated. New approaches are the direct measurement of socially relevant effects of agriculture, such as nitrate sensors in the soil, automated biodiversity monitoring or the use of remote sensing to present ecological services.

If farmers could credibly demonstrate how their services serve the common good or contribute to greater sustainability, we would build trust through greater competence and reliability in socially relevant issues.

Digital technologies can increase the trustworthiness of agriculture - but they must address societal goals. (Illustration: Helmer)

Hypothesis 2: Developing visions instead of getting lost in details

Instead of talking about individual technologies, we should develop positive visions of the agriculture of the future in which these technologies are part of an overall system.


The automotive industry is leading the way: Instead of talking about technical details, visions of sustainable and individual mobility are being developed in which battery-electric drives, autonomous driving and digital networking are building blocks for a positive picture of the future. Unfortunately, these visions are not very widespread in our industry, but they could bring the discussion away from technical production details and towards a dialogue with society about the big goals.

Hypothesis 3: Carrying farmers' ecological services to the consumer


We should use digital technologies to establish new value chains. They could combine the goals of consumers and the services of new growing systems.

Many companies are already developing cultivation systems further, often with the help of new technologies. Socially relevant benefits for biodiversity, soil, water or against residues in food are often present, but cannot be supported by consumers. Why? The goods produced are communicatively dumped on the "big conventional heap" instead of carrying the positive values of the product across the entire value chain to the consumer.

Thanks to new cultivation systems and technologies, farmers have long since been able to provide more of the ecological services that consumers demand today. The only reason they are not paid for this is because this service is not reflected on the product. Traceability of individual positive product characteristics could change that.

Take, for example, a start-up company that sells microorganisms that - seed dressed - are supposed to lead to higher stress resistance, nutrient efficiency and plant health. The company does not simply sell its product to farmers and has closed the deal. It looks at which products are subsequently produced on the basis of this cultivation system and carries their ecological benefits to the end consumer. Then it would say on the bread that less pesticides have been used for the wheat it contains. Only proof through traceability would lead to higher prices throughout the chain.


Positive product characteristics such as special cultivation methods can be traced back from the field to the supermarket shelf thanks to blockchain. (Illustration: Helmer)

Hypothesis 4: Build your own brand decentrally

Despite all the disadvantages, such as insular thinking and "fake news", social media enable personal communication between farmers and consumers. It can be more trustworthy than the central communication of large institutions and associations.

The agricultural sector needs faces with which society identifies. Farmers must find their niche, become a brand in their environment and communicate this. Away from exchangeable commodities, out of an anonymous existence. Towards regional specialities, towards a farmer who empathically participates in discussions and is listened to. Farm visits invited via Facebook or explanatory videos on YouTube, Instagram or blogs are promising.

The escape from the green echo chamber is a challenge. Social communication is anything but trivial. But it's worth seeking professional help and investing your energy here. Modifying the profile picture on Facebook can only be the beginning.

The original article was published on the website of the network f3 - farm. food. future. in November 2019.

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