New coalition addresses widening consumer gap

By Matt Reese

The newly formed Coalition for Sustainable Animal Agriculture, coordinated by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), combines forces of food processors, producer groups and other agricultural stakeholders to encourage a more holistic view of what it takes to be sustainable in agriculture.

Charlie Arnot, with CFI, led much of the discussion at the recent North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture that outlined the need for the coalition.

“How do we help those in the food system evaluate the potential tradeoffs when considering food safety, animal health and well-being, worker health and well-being, environmental impacts and food affordability? We think things have fundamentally shifted in the last 90 days when you look at what happened with lean finely textured beef and the current pressure of Kashi to eliminate GM soy. We’re seeing the mobilization of the online communities around specific food concerns that almost erupt like a wildfire. We’re not well prepared for that,” Arnot said. “We’re seeing more pressure on branded food companies from Non-Governmental Organizations and advocacy groups on specific issues. Animal ag and agriculture in general are not necessarily comfortable in engaging in that environment. How do we do a better job engaging in a way that helps us understand that what we’re doing is really consistent with what they want us to be doing? Rather than defending, we engage in a conversation that helps them understand what we are doing and, more importantly, understand what they want from us.”

The rift between the general public and production agriculture has grown to the degree that even sincere and legitimate communication efforts are becoming challenging. Agriculture legitimately wants to serve the needs of consumers who legitimately want to know more about their food supply, but the communication gap is becoming increasingly challenging.

“First, rather than responding with science, listen to consumer concerns, acknowledge those concerns and then help people understand what you are doing to address them. The second thing is to really increase transparency. We know we have to listen and address the concerns that are relevant to consumers. Science is not enough anymore. Science tells us if we can do something, society tells us if we should,” Arnot said. “We have to be able to understand the difference between that. We cannot substitute scientific verification for ethical justification. We need to be able to help people understand that we value what is important to them, and then we have the opportunity to introduce the science. We first must show them that we take responsibility for what happens on our farms.”

Ohio, however, has some advantages with this challenge due to the proactive creation and implementation of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. This has set the base for a discussion on issues that some consumers want to see addressed.

“We have to increase transparency with consumers. They want to know how it’s produced, how it’s processed, what’s in it, and what’s not in it,” said Dave White, with Center for Food & Animal Issues at the Ohio Farm Bureau, who attended the meeting. “Today’s consumers are more opinionated, they’re better informed and, though some may question their information sources, better educated. The consumer perceptions are the reality that we have to deal with today. The talking points we’ve been using for decades do not resonate with consumers.”

The Coalition effort even includes the American Humane Association (AHA) that offers a Humane Certified program for farms.

“There are 135 million animals on 5,000 farms that we third party certify. We are hoping for more growth with more animals that are under that umbrella for producing humanely raised products, whether that be dairy or meat or eggs. Also very important to us is that farmers have a very successful way of raising animals for their own business,” said Kathi Brock, the senior director of the Farm Animal Program for the AHA. “I am delighted that there is this openness to collaborate and really, to listen. Too long in ag there has been the idea that ‘if you knew us, you’d love us.’ We all need to be talking to each other. That is very healthy. To see this progression is really amazing.”

 

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