The list of polarizing events for consumers seems to be rising – from gun control, same-sex marriage and abortion rights to school prayer, immigration and climate change.

Add to that polarization questions surrounding how food is produced, according to the Center for Food Integrity's (CFI’s) 2013 Consumer Trust in the Food System Research.

CFI asked consumers if the food system is headed in the right direction or if it is on the wrong track. The results show the American public is becoming more polarized on the issue and fewer are in the middle.

Approximately one-third (34%) of consumers say the food system is headed in the right direction and 38% feel we’re on the wrong track. And the middle ground is shrinking – 28% in the 2013 study are unsure, which is an 11% decrease from a year ago. The data also reveals a gender gap. Just over 40% of the women surveyed believe today’s food system is on the wrong track, while 39% of men say it’s headed in the right direction.

“The data shows skepticism about today’s food system continues to grow,” says Charlie Arnot, CFI CEO. “And particularly worrisome is the fact that it’s growing among those consumers most influential in the public discussion on food system issues – women and early adopters.”

Early adopters represent the segment of society most able to affect public opinion. They are better educated, more affluent and tend to be the gatekeepers of social change.

“Rising consumer polarization requires the food system to be willing to engage the public in new ways,” Arnot says.

“We can reverse the trend of rising consumer polarization by increasing our transparency, being willing to embrace the skepticism that we see currently across all consumers, and by focusing our activities specifically on those who believe our food system is on the wrong track – women and early adopters.”

Today’s food system stakeholders must be willing to have conversations with an increasingly skeptical public by participating in the online communities where they discuss food issues and being transparent and open to the questions that are most relevant to them.

CFI’s peer-reviewed and published research proves that communicating shared values is three to five times more powerful in building trust than proving your point with science. It’s less about trying to convince someone that they should change their values and beliefs and more about helping them understand that what the food system is doing is already better aligned with their expectations than they may have thought.

Learn more about CFI’s latest Consumer Trust Research here. View CFI's three 2013 trust research webinars here.