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What happened to enquiring minds?

Richard Heath - Thursday, April 14, 2016

If you are looking for a new way to waste time on the Internet, dive into the rabbit hole that is Google trends. Simply input a search item or two and it will show you how often that search has been performed compared to all other searches, which countries the searches have been originating from and what other terms have been used alongside that search.

An ever deepening spiral of investigation gives great insight into what the collective conscious is thinking about if you can accept that our pleas to Google are reflective of true enquiry. It is particularly interesting for those of us that have an interest in consumer trends and the impact that they have on Agriculture.

The increase in web search interest for Farmers Markets as illustrated by the Google trends data below supports the much talked about trend of more consumer interest in the provenance of food.

There is a trap however in thinking that this interest translates beyond the small market segment that is Farmers’ markets into enquiry from the population at large about our food systems and where our food comes from.

One of the major food trends over the last decade has been the rise of Gluten-free diets. While there are significant portions of the population that have diagnosed medical conditions such as Celiac disease that necessitate a Gluten-free diet there are many more that have taken on Gluten-free as a lifestyle choice.

Instant access to reams of information about “healthy” diets and theories about the decline in public health or the evils of modern agricultural systems drive some of these lifestyle choices but how far does enquiry go beyond “gluten is bad” to an investigation of exactly what is gluten and where does it come from. Again, Google Trends provides some interesting evidence that it is not very far at all.

Given that wheat is the primary source of gluten in our food systems it is not too much of an assumption to make that an interest in why gluten is bad should at least partially translate into an interest in wheat. Google Trends data shows that during the period where searches for Gluten-free diets were skyrocketing, searches for the source of gluten – wheat, have not increased at all.

So what does this mean for agriculture? We are a long way from consumers being forced to eat whatever is available because that’s all there is. Consumers will be making choices about food purchases and influencing food and agriculture policy based not on logical enquiry and informed knowledge but more on clever marketing around what diet a celebrity is on for a long time into the future.

While ever consumer choice is based less on logic and science and more on intangibles, policy formulation, research priority setting and marketing strategies will be challenging. It is a challenge that is able to be met however thought the use of data analytics and other tools that capture the mood of the public and define trends.

The collective public mind is still enquiring about food and agriculture, perhaps just not in the same way that people involved in the production of food are enquiring about food and agriculture. With the data analytics we collectively have at our disposal now however there is no excuse not to understand and take advantage of public enquiry, however disconnected from reality you might believe it to be.



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