Consumers trust farmers, but they’re not sure that today’s production qualifies as farming. That disconnect, described by Charlie Arnot from the Center for Food Integrity, is one of the key challenges discussed at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s 2011 conference in April. An overriding theme from the conference, titled “Consumers’ stake in today’s food production,” was that animal agriculture needs to reconnect with consumers, with messages backed by science but focused on values.

Defining the challenge
Livestock producers face a striking dilemma. On one hand, protein production must increase to meet the demands of a growing and more affluent global population. The increase will need to occur with less land, more competition for water and rising prices for virtually every agricultural input. On the other hand, a vocal and increasingly influential segment of U.S. consumers insists that agriculture must back away from intensive, high-yield production systems in favor of small, local, natural farming they perceive as more sustainable.

But amid all the media noise over animal welfare, carbon footprints and sustainability of “factory farming,” a legitimate question to ask is whether the negative publicity actually influences consumer behavior.

The answer, at least in the case of animal welfare, appears to be yes, based on results of research at Kansas State University. And even if direct impacts on beef demand appear minimal, we cannot become complacent in a belief that pork and poultry are taking most of the heat.

A team of K-State researchers led by ag economist Glynn Tonsor, PhD, conducted a large keyword search of major U.S. newspapers and magazines, looking for references to animal welfare, animal handling, animal care and related terms appearing from 1982 through 2008. They found that during that time, animal-welfare coverage related to pork production increased 181 percent between 1999 and 2008, while poultry coverage increased 253 percent during the same period.

The researchers then cross-referenced the volume of media coverage with fluctuations in meat demand. They found no direct impact on beef demand but determined the coverage correlated with reductions in demand for pork and poultry. They estimate that pork and poultry demand increases over the last decade would have been 2.6 percent and 5 percent higher, respectively, if media attention in the fourth quarter of 2008 was at equal levels with the first quarter of 1999.

Beef, however, didn’t benefit from the hit on pork or poultry demand. The researchers determined that when consumers responded to negative media coverage, they shifted their purchases away from meat altogether.

Building a united front
The next question, of course, is “what can the industry do?” A predominant theme throughout the NIAA conference was that stakeholders in animal agriculture must work together, presenting a clear, consistent and positive message to influencers and the general public.

Numerous organizations, including NIAA, the Animal Agriculture Alliance and NCBA, work to defend modern livestock production, but individually they have limited resources for advocacy. Coalitions of groups with shared interests can pool those resources for more concerted initiatives, and one example is the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

Hugh Whaley, general manager for USFRA, says the alliance began with 20 organizations, including the National Corn Growers Association, American Farm Bureau, NCBA, the National Pork Producers Council and others. Membership now has grown to 32. These organizations, he says, have significantly different positions on some issues but all want to build consumer trust. To facilitate cooperation, the group agreed to take two issues off the table — biofuels and the Farm Bill — and focus exclusively on communicating a more realistic and positive portrayal of modern American agriculture to the public.

The group is now developing a communications strategy and plans to launch its first initiative this summer, Whaley says. Ahead of the launch, they plan to test and evaluate their messages with consumer focus groups, to help ensure positive responses.

Another coalition, the International Food Information Council, focuses its efforts further downstream, providing factual information about food production, safety and nutrition.

IFIC president and CEO David Schmidt says the organization, whose 36 members include food processors, retailers and restaurant chains, partners with groups representing physicians, dieticians, nutritionists and others to communicate science-based information on foods and the food system to government and influencers.

IFIC also has played a lead role in a new initiative, Alliance to Feed the Future, which includes over 50 industry groups, universities and others hoping to multiply the impact of positive messages relating to modern food production.

Bridging the gap

Framing the message
So what should our message be? Arnot says farmers’ and ranchers’ freedom to operate depends largely on a “social license,” which requires public trust and a belief that agricultural activities and production practices are consistent with expectations of consumers. But if consumer trust is lost, agricultural production moves toward “social control,” featuring greater regulation, litigation and higher production costs.

The agricultural sector, Arnot says, sometimes misses the mark in working to build consumer trust. We tend to stress competence — saying we know what we’re doing and showing data to prove it — when consumers are more interested in values. Shared values are three to five times more important in building trust than demonstrating competence, he says.

We can tell consumers, for example, that farmers in the United States today produce 333 percent more corn on 11 percent fewer acres than in 1950, and produce 63 percent more milk with 58 percent fewer cows. The average U.S. farmer today feeds 155 people compared with 30 in 1950. In 1908, Americans spent 50 percent of their income on food, while today the figure is around 8 percent. But these data do not tell the whole story.

   Ethics are top-of-mind for consumers, so we need to refine the message, stressing that increased productivity means less land, less water and less environmental impact for the same unit of food production. And we need to demonstrate that even as farms grow larger, producers remain committed to animal care, environmental protection and feeding a hungry world.

Above all, Arnot says, the agricultural sector needs to listen to consumers, acknowledge their concerns and demonstrate shared values. Our tendency is to fight back with data refuting what we see as misconceptions. A better approach could be to say, “Yes, we’re concerned about that too. Here are the ways we’re working to ensure we do the right thing.”

Gaining ground
But can even the right messages, targeted to the right people, make a difference? Results from several efforts suggest they can.

At IFIC, Schmidt describes the group’s ongoing initiative on “processed foods” as an example of how information can influence public perceptions. In 2008, the IFIC conducted a national survey of consumers, mostly women, who serve as the primary shoppers for their households. Survey results showed 43 percent of respondents unfavorable, 18 percent favorable and 40 percent neutral toward processed foods. The results also indicated consumer concerns might not be so much about processing but rather certain ingredients, including sodium, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup that were strongly linked to negative perceptions. And amid consumer skepticism of processed foods, survey results showed they place a high value on taste, freshness and food safety.

Using this information, the IFIC developed messages and delivery strategies to address the issue. A key message, Schmidt says, is that the term “processed foods” can mean many things, as most food sold at retail is processed to some extent. And in many cases, processing provides clear benefits to consumers in food safety, flavor, convenience, variety and year-round availability. The organization tested these messages with consumer focus groups and found their favorable ratings for processed foods improved after receiving the information.

The organization then developed a consumer-education program including a leader guide titled “Understanding our food” and a tool kit with handouts about foods and food processing, all available on the group’s website.

Fighting back
Another example illustrates how aggressively countering misinformation with facts can derail the activist agenda. Earlier this year, an Alabama-based law firm, Beasley Allen, filed a class-action lawsuit against Taco Bell, accusing the chain of false advertising. The firm alleged Taco Bell’s taco filling contained less than 35 percent meat and couldn’t be advertised as beef.

Taco Bell immediately fought back, running a series of advertisements insisting they use 100 percent USDA-inspected beef, cooked with their signature blend of seasonings. The resulting filling, Taco Bell says, is 88 percent beef and 12 percent seasonings and other ingredients.

Turns out they were right. In a late-April news release, Taco Bell announced that after reviewing the facts, the law firm has voluntarily withdrawn the suit. No money or other value was exchanged between the parties, according to the release, and Taco Bell is not making any changes to its products or advertising.

Back in January when the lawsuit was announced, Taco Bell received widespread negative publicity in the media. The issue undoubtedly hurt the chain’s business, at least in the short term. The end result, however, demonstrates the value of fighting back. Taco Bell’s ad campaign went straight to consumers, building a case for the quality and integrity of the chain’s products. By presenting factual information on the contents of its taco filling, the company forced a full retreat by the plaintiffs. 

Sidebar: Gaining perspective on livestock’s shadow

How long is your shadow? The answer, of course, differs whether you are standing on the equator at noon or on a mountaintop at sunset. Likewise, the “shadow” or carbon footprint of livestock production depends on where and how you measure it.

Frank Mitloehner, PhD, an animal scientist and air-quality specialist at the University of California-Davis, has helped restore perspective on environmental impacts of livestock production. Perspective on the issue has been rare since 2006, when the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization released its report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claimed animal agriculture generates 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, exceeding that of the transportation sector.

Mitloehner and other scientists since have demonstrated the fallacy of those conclusions. First, Mitloehner addresses differences in production practices around the world. In some regions, particularly South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, deforestation has accompanied expansion in livestock production, so greenhouse-gas emissions increased while the carbon-storing properties of forests were lost. Also, in many developing nations, livestock production is extensive, while their transportation infrastructure is underdeveloped, so GHG emissions associated with livestock production could exceed those of transportation.

The picture is far different in developed countries such as the United States. Here we see annual net gains in forested land, rather than deforestation, and more intensive, rather than extensive livestock production. Efficiencies in production systems allow more meat production per animal and per land unit, meaning less emission. Total U.S. GHG emissions for a unit of meat production are about one-tenth of those in Brazil, Mitloehner says. Our transportation sector, meanwhile, is well-developed. Emissions from generating electrical power account for about 31 percent, transportation 26 percent and livestock about 3 percent of the U.S. total, according to EPA estimates.

The FAO report lumped all regions together in arriving at the 18 percent figure, but it gets worse. In a report titled “Clearing the air: Livestock’s contribution to climate change,” Mitloehner and his research colleagues point out a significant error in the FAO report. The report relies on a type of study called “lifecycle analysis,” or LCA, to estimate GHG emissions from a system. But all LCAs are not created equal. The FAO used the most extensive type of LCA to estimate emissions from livestock, including those from inputs such as grain production, drying and transport, and every other process contributing to meat delivered to consumers. But in their estimates of transportation emissions, the authors used the simplest form of LCA, looking at tailpipe emissions alone. They measured livestock’s shadow from the mountaintop at sunset, and transportation’s shadow on the equator at noon. The authors of “Livestock’s Long Shadow” have since admitted the error.