The voices are louder now, their message against so many aspects of modern agriculture growing more persistent and emotional. I could list their general targets, but they are all so familiar. In response, dozens if not hundreds of uniquely positioned campaigns defend our farming and ranching practices with attempts to communicate with consumers or specifically dieticians, nutritionists, moms, millennials, students and so many others.
Let’s take this moment in time and be honest with ourselves. Agriculture has invested well over $200 million the past decade trying to help consumers understand how their food is grown and raised and why the American farming system should be trusted. At this point, we must ask ourselves: Where has this gotten us? What successes have we accomplished for our industry?
Are we, as an industry, more attuned to consumer behavior? Are we more effective at responding to the needs of the consumer? Absolutely. Have new markets been recognized or created from these efforts? Yes, many. Still, try as we must, the wolves have not been kept at bay. They tear away relentlessly at core aspects of our production practices.
There is no need to call out the specific instances where we have lost ground with consumers, though it would be a worthy exercise. We must, however, constantly identify and analyze our successes and where opportunities lie. After spending the past 25 years examining every piece of consumer and food market-research I could get my hands on; developing and leading initiatives to increase consumer trust; debating and, from time to time, having meaningful conversations with impassioned food activists - I have some specific thoughts I would like to share.
Categorically, the U.S. ag industry was simply caught off-guard by the consumer uprising on GMOs and animal antibiotics, as well as other scrutinized production practices. Perhaps even more notable, when we did engage, we did it with an unintended arrogance. Most often, convinced activists organizations were focused on a small group of under-informed consumers. We reacted slowly, ever so careful not to heighten awareness of the topic in our measured response.
I am being most critical of myself and the mistakes that I have made in this effort. In the past 25 years, I have had from one finger to both hands on the steering wheel that guided agriculture’s consumer interaction. Simply stated, bringing forward the right combination of science, emotion and open communication often seemed visible, yet somehow success remained just out of reach.
Act More Quickly, Collectively and Decisively
The groups that are proactively working to defy every communication effort that comes from “big” ag have been exceedingly effective at disenfranchising those farmers and ranchers that have more than 50 acres and an 80-horsepower tractor. These same organizations have now stumbled upon, if not strategically so, a core alignment on issues related to production practices. Their method is to target meat production with three simple messages: consumption negatively impacts human health; grain production and waste management damage the environment and cause climate change; and finally, eating meat is an act of animal cruelty. Those three factors hit directly at modern agriculture and could work to destabilize this crucial but vulnerable industry.
The answers aren’t simple, but if we know anything by now, it’s that we must speak collectively. And we all need to invest in the effort. No matter if your company produces livestock or grain equipment, seed or medication, food products or any of the other food or ag products or services I could call out, find a way to align with one, two or three of the national agricultural efforts that exist to communicate directly with consumers. They are experts and they need your participation - company and individual support alike.
To commodity and farm groups: I respectfully, and with some trepidation, suggest that you rethink your consumer outreach efforts. Ag leadership at every level needs to focus outreach dollars on those geographies that are driving the uninformed and unrealistic side of the food movement. Converging on Dayton, Denver, Des Moines, Dallas or Durham only mitigates the pain. The core pressure points, where we need to immediately and bravely engage, are nearly the entire coastal region of the West, the Northeast, D.C. and Chicago. From there it falls off rapidly. The hurdle is high, and can feel insurmountable, but it is not. It simply takes the courage to invest and trust in those efforts that have the knowledge and expertise to prevail.
Become a Part of the Entertainment Industry
An enormous challenge for modern agriculture is we basically get crushed in high schools and on college campuses. I have been fortunate to professionally work directly with many young people, to be highly engaged in campus settings and to have dialogue constantly with individuals currently attending these institutions. What has it taught me? These young people, primarily millennials, are hyper-engaged and impressionable regarding their food. They shape opinions based on the information in front of them, and frankly, we put very little intelligence at their disposal.
There are dozens of movies available through major online venues that paint agriculture as a catastrophic element causing human health and environmental decline. Food Inc., released in 2008, is undoubtedly the most popular documentary about food production in high school classrooms and continues to shape young minds with falsehoods about our industry. The initial launch budget for that movie alone was more than the combined budget of the three more-balanced farm and ranch films with which I am extremely familiar.
Agriculture must collectively respond to alarmists claims with multiple films and a major effort in creating digital content that begins to off-set the negativity in this space. In order not to be playing defense, we must surprise our audience, even ruffle some feathers as we entertain. It’s a tough nut to crack. If I could do just one thing, one thing for this beloved industry and the incredible people that comprise it, it would be here, in the entertainment industry. It’s not cheap or easy, but if we speak the truth and recognize the onslaught of challenges that are headed at us like a bullet train: gene editing, clean meat, water quality, renewed focus on pesticides and “it’s not safe if it’s not organic” - we will realize that documentary films are an unequaled tool to inform and even sway a public that is hungry for information.
Listen, then Act with Passion
Finally, we all know how critical social media and digital content are as we tell our story of producing food. We also must recognize that nearly 90 percent of the time in unpaid or non-promoted social experiences, we are simply speaking to other agriculturalists, or those who follow us simply to question every single statement we post. We need to engage experts in the blogging and social spaces, transparently. We will not like everything they say or post, but we must get over ourselves and let people who have hundreds of thousands of non-ag followers engage in this conversation for us. Winston Churchill once said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”