After months of studying not only the proposal for a generic marketing board for fresh produce but also the mechanics of how the “dialog” is being conducted by the advocates of the board, we realize the key problem:
The advocates rushed into “dialog” when what the industry really needed was debate.
There is no question that the advocates of the board are people of good will. Anyone who knows Elizabeth Pivonka, the President of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, knows that within her heart burns a white hot fire of passion to change the patterns of poor-eating that burden our nation. Her goal, clear and simple, is to bring better health to our people. It is entirely admirable.
Yet we have a process that just isn’t working.
The problem is that although the advocates speak truthfully when they say they are open to dialog, it is in the nature of the fact that the advocates hope to see a board established that they are limited in what type of input they can utilize.
There is no question that in the course of “dialog,” if the industry made clear it preferred a program that, say, focused solely on fresh product or that was better funded or that had a payment scheme which was fairer, the advocates of the board would gladly alter their specific proposal.
But this describes a limited dialog indeed. As long as one agrees with the basic premise of the advocates — that a national generic promotion program is desirable — they will incorporate all feedback into the specific plan.
The advocates are polite but if someone stands up at a meeting and says they oppose the proposal, there is really no mechanism to utilize that input in any way.
The advocates of the plan perceive that in the past when proposals were brought forth for a generic marketing board, they were quickly shot down and thus not given due consideration. They wanted to get a proposal out there so that it could be seriously considered.
Yet it is unclear how such a proposal could be “shot down” unless those who opposed it were very influential in the industry. Doing an end-run around such influential organizations hardly seems like a strategy likely to succeed. What was required was not an end-run around such influential skeptics on the idea of a generic promotion board but, rather, an effort to educate and persuade these skeptics.
Instead, the advocates have willfully decided to skip the precondition for a dialog, an industry debate of the utility of a generic promotion program, and focus in on program details. In fact, they have put forward such a fully formed proposal that nobody who was doubtful as to the efficacy of a generic promotion program could possibly be persuaded by a PowerPoint presentation almost wholly devoted to explaining the details of this program.
It is as if the advocates were told that proposals foundered in the past on program details rather than because many in the industry doubted they would see a return on investment.
At this point, PBH has the results of its study of industry attitudes. We already mentioned that PBH made the terrible mistake of not vetting the questionnaire and the process with opponents, so it lacks credibility. Yet, we suspect that even with its problems, the fact that we have been told nothing of the results indicates a less-than-overwhelming endorsement.
If so, PBH should really walk the program back and explain that in this recessionary environment, it is just not the time to have this dialog. They should withdraw the proposal as written.
Let us try, though, to imagine a process that could lead to the industry ultimately making the best possible decision:
1) There are many reasons to think that PBH is not the right organization to spearhead a drive for a mandatory assessment. Yes, its goal is to improve health by improving diets through an increase in produce consumption, so its leaders perceive anything that will increase produce consumption as in its bailiwick.
Yet we would argue that just as a local hospital, though dedicated to health, has no business using donations to lobby people to support President Obama’s health plan; so PBH, as a voluntary charity, simply shouldn’t lobby on an issue such as a mandatory assessment.
2) After these many months of discussion, if there are not 25 organizations willing to put up, say, $20,000 each to further this effort, then industry support is so weak, we need to postpone indefinitely. If we can get some support or if PBH insists on proceeding on its own, then we should proceed to develop further steps to educate ourselves on what the industry truly needs.
3) We should embark on an educational program at the conceptual level: Does generic marketing increase consumption? Does it do so for diverse product groups such as fruits and vegetables? How much money is required to change consumption? Does that investment have to be sustained? Are there alternatives such as commodity-specific generic promotion or branded promotion that are more effective? Would such a program increase profits as well as increase consumption? What industry segment would see profits increased?
4) It is important that this industry education initiative not be tarnished by politics. So we should reach out to those who support and those who oppose such a program and try to gain consensus not on the substance of the matter but on credible, neutral academics who might shepherd such an educational initiative. We have mentioned well known names such as Ed McLaughlin of Cornell University and Roberta Cook at UC Davis. It needs to be coordinated by people thought to be genuine truth-seekers.
This process may involve research, literature reviews, industry roundtables, presentations, publications, etc. The purpose is to develop and disseminate the best knowledge possible on the core subjects at hand.
5) When the educational process is done, we should have a series of debates: Rather than these one-sided presentations, we should encourage robust debate on each issue. The debates should be relevant to each constituency. In Salinas, we might debate whether row crop growers can profit from such an initiative due to the supply response. In Oregon, we can ask the same question adjusting for the lag of supply response on pear trees.
6) We can then ascertain whether the industry believes that, conceptually, this idea is desirable. If not, we end the process. If so, we proceed.
7) We can then use a blank-paper approach to begin building an actual proposal. Committees and subcommittees are formed. Questions are collected and discussed: Ought there to be a brand credit? A credit for paying into commodity-specific promotion groups? Each question is analyzed and debated; research may need to be conducted. Importantly, the discussions are open and transparent. Input is invited from anyone who would like to contribute.
8) The proposal is then circulated and an educational campaign is conducted.
9) A series of debates are held on the subject.
10) If industry support is overwhelming, we proceed down the USDA path to a vote.
The key problem is that the program currently proposed skipped the first seven steps in this outline and moved right to number eight.
Perhaps the advocates will look at this outline and moan: “It will take too long” or “It will be too hard” and such response is understandable. But politics, and that is what this is, is often hard. If you think about issues such as Women’s Suffrage, it took many years of hard work to change the opinions of people sufficiently to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
To persuade is difficult, but in a free society, persuasion is all we have. If the process of persuasion will take long, then we should begin soon. If it will be hard, then we must steel ourselves for the work. As the Romans said: Hoc opus, hic labor est.