I receive many emails from readers that really get me thinking, and one from reader Austin Black is a good example. Black suggests a discussion about the ethics and morality of the beef business and how we can demonstrate to consumers that we do what is right in raising cattle. Here is what he had to say:
“For the past few years, we have been preaching the need for farmers to share their story and get personal with consumers about how we raise food. We try to help them put a face to the plate and trust the people who provide for families across this nation and world. And while the ag industry has made progress and educated people, we still seem to face an insurmountable battle with activist groups, natural-focused food companies and even the government.
“We as an ag community have preached how humane our practices are, how efficient and environmentally friendly our farms run, how much we produce compared to 50 years ago, and how science and technology aids in our progress. But what the opposing team (HSUS, Panera, Chipotle, PETA, etc.) is saying, and what is resonating with consumers, is the question of what is ethical, what is right and what is moral.
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“I know as farmers, we do look at the bottom line, as well as the science, the technology, and yes the humane aspect. But because we don't have any qualms with how we operate, we don't think about what is really ethical or moral about how and why we farm. So naturally we aren't inclined to talk and share in this way.
“My question is how does the ag community address and respond to this? How do we get away from using facts, numbers and vocabulary that address our efficiency, our effect on the environment and the fact that we are caring for our animals in ways that are approved by the government, and focus on sharing the ethical and moral reason for why we farm, how we produce and why we are justified in that regard?
“I hear the same story over and over from farmers, and I see attack after attack from outside groups and campaigns. But I don't see the ag industry changing how we handle, react to and go on the offense to these situations. I would love to hear your thoughts and see a blog addressing this aspect.”
Black makes a good point that while we have plenty of science and research to back up our production practices, our adversaries are much better at appealing to the emotional side of the conversation. Think about the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) TV commercials asking for $19.99 to save dogs and cats. Put to gloomy music, sad-eyed and frightened puppies and kittens are show in video close-ups, and HSUS practically reaches through the TV screen and into our wallets.
What about celebrities? Many cite being sympathetic to animals as reasons why they have chosen a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. They’ve either read something sensational in an article or book, or watched a video of animal abuse taken by undercover activists on a farm (not aware that, too often, the abuse is actually perpetrated by activists to get the footage they want to do the most damage to the industry).
Many consumers mistrust modern agriculture. Words like “big ag,” and “factory farms” leave the impression that American agriculturalists willingly sacrifice their integrity and the wellness of the animals in their care to maximize production. Rationally, our consumers probably know that large farms and ranches enable us to produce enough food to feed a growing population, but emotionally, they want Grandpa’s Old MacDonald-style farm to return, complete with two cows, three chickens, a horse, and a couple of pigs.
So how do we address morality, ethics and integrity in our conversations with consumers? For starters, I think we can continue to post photos on social media of our contented cattle grazing summer pastures, our families working together on the ranch, and healthy beef sizzling on the grill. A picture is worth a thousand words after all; simply by sharing the aspects of our daily life, I think we can show our consumers who we are and what we are really all about in agriculture.
But how about counteracting the emotionally charged attacks that animal rights and environmental activists throw our way? That is not such an easy task; however, I think the biggest thing we can do is to never leave such attacks unaddressed. It’s not fun to be reactive, but if we don’t respond to negative press, it can quickly become “fact” in the eyes of the consumer, no matter how outlandish.
I’d like to have readers’ thoughts on this topic. How can we show our consumers that we are doing what is right when it comes to raising livestock? How can we showcase our values, integrity, ethics and morality? How can we regain our consumers’ trust? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Thanks, Austin, for the great email and conversation starter! Have a suggestion for a future blog discussion? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of Beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.
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