Animal agriculture advocates address public image challenges

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, May 4, 2012- Transparency and outreach are essential for animal agriculture to close the “communication gap” that exists between the industry and the general public, according to several speakers at the Animal Agriculture Alliance's 11th annual Stakeholder Summit this week. Nearly two hundred animal agriculture representatives attended the summit in Arlington, Va., where Indiana Pork Executive Director Mike Platt described his organization's approach to the communication problem. 

Platt is president of the Fair Oaks Farms' new “Pig Adventure” organizing board, which is implementing a 2,600 sow operation to be open for public tours. With a “Disney-like” engagement for its customers, Platt said the “Pig Adventure” will convey the main messages that pork farming is compatible with the environment, pork producers care about their animals and that pork is healthy. He said Fair Oaks Farms expects its first visitors to the sow operation by next year's Memorial Day, which will be an addition to its existing dairy operation with similar public tours.

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“Our goal is to bridge the divide between producer and consumer,” he said. “There is no one solution to the problems facing us in terms of consumer education, but there are 100 ‘one percent' solutions out there.”

Platt said that his goal is to protect producer choice while being transparent about modern agricultural practices to farm visitors.  

“If there's a production practice that we are doing today we ought to be able to explain it,” he said. “If we can't explain it, maybe we shouldn't be doing it.”

He noted that pork operations in the United Kingdom no longer have a choice in how to maintain their operations due to a ban on gestation stalls directed by the European Union. The UK already eliminated gestation stalls, but they are to be phased out throughout the EU by 2013. 

“We must protect and maintain producer choice in how to raise their animals, in the best way that's right for their animals and their farms,” Platt said. “Their choice is critical. And that's what being lost in the United Kingdom.”

Agralytica Senior Consultant Andre Williamson said his firm's studies show that the UK ban on sow stalls would have a comparable impact in United States of $5.8 billion in capital costs and $1.1 billion in additional annual operating costs. These regulations drive down production and impact producer costs as well as consumer prices, Williamson said. He said feed lot regulations implemented in Colorado contributed to a 50 percent drop in the state's hog production.

“Regulations have a negative affect on demand,” he said. “And the primary threat is to exports.”

However, consumers are becoming more vocal about agricultural practices, including animal housing, Williamson noted.  National Grocers Association Government Affairs Vice President Greg Ferrara provided the retail perspective of the industry for the animal agriculture representatives at the conference. He noted that today's consumer is more connected and informed than ever before. 

“Today's consumer is very informed,” he said. “In an era of instant communication, our consumer can get information instantly, whether it's on a product or something that's happened.”

This connectivity makes it essential for producers to be transparent and open about their practices, noted several speakers at the conference. A central theme of the meeting was “the need to bridge the urban-rural divide to help the average consumer understand today's agricultural practices,” noted the Animal Agriculture Alliance.

Cause Matters Corp. founder Michele Payn-Knoper said producers are not the dominant voice of agriculture, noting that Michael Pollen, Jamie Oliver and other celebrity names are receiving the attention and serving as agriculture's representatives for much of the public. She used the lean finely textured beef (LFTB), or “pink slime,” media spotlight as an example of failed communication between agriculture and the public. 

“We have to do a better job responding to the media, this is where agriculture has consistently failed,” she said. “You may think you're in the business of farming, but in reality, you're in the court of public opinion.”

Meatingplace Executive Editor Janie Gabbett said the pork industry “has been really behind” on addressing the public attention on gestation stalls. Several restaurants, including McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, vowed to stop buying pork from operations housing sows in the confined stalls. 

“The pork industry has really been behind on this story, but not necessarily been behind on the actions,” she said. “The pork industry knows housing has always been evolutionary.” 

However, today's headlines don't recognize “the hard work the industry's already doing,” she said. “Make sure that you can explain the science behind your practices,” Gabbett added while encouraging producers to be proactive and open to the media instead of defensive. 

“Animal agriculture is less visible to a majority of population that lives in cities,” said Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. “And anything invisible can become politicized.”

Otto spoke about the public's understanding of science and the challenges that come from science's relationship with politics.

“Part of problem with scientific communication is it's hard to understand the invisible,” Otto said. Food production has an invisibility problem, he said, and practices that are invisible to the public often become emotional issues driven from belief.

He noted that science is expanding exponentially thanks to increased technology and global availability. Otto said some estimate that this growth may create as much knowledge in the next 40 years as in the last 400 years.

“Science increases freedom because it gives us choices and expands our power to choose,” he said. “With that efficiency comes a gap we have to fill with communication.”

With producers making up only two percent of the U.S. population, he said it is easy for people to lose understanding of the normal process of agriculture. Combating extremist views of agriculture means working against partisanship and providing public outreach, he noted, because a communication gap exists when people become disconnected from their food.

“The more we can do to reconnect people with the process, the more successful we can be,” he said while emphasizing the importance of reminding people about the science behind their food supply.


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