Meredith: Millennials, the “greener” generation?

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Emily MeredithEmily Meredith The millennial generation is concerned about “causes” and one of their favorites is having a sustainable environment.

Last week, the Clinton Global Initiative, in conjunction with Microsoft, released the results of a poll aimed to identify millennials’ top priorities. The release of the poll results coincided with the Clinton Global Initiative University conference at Arizona State University, where students from across the country gathered to focus on global issues, including climate change, education and food security. 

According to the poll, millennials say they are more focused on the environment than their parents’ generation, 76% to 24%. More than 66% of millennials say there is “solid evidence” the earth is getting warmer, and 75% of those respondents say human activity is responsible for it.

Yet, millennials are unsure if they can solve the problem of climate change, according to the poll. Fifty-four percent of millennials feel they’ll make a significant contribution to better the environment, while 56% believe they’ll actually worsen the earth’s condition in their lifetimes. Respondents were also divided on the best route to address global warming: half said governments and political action, and half said individuals can best combat it on their own.

But—most crucially—more than two-thirds of respondents said they are willing to pay more for products from sustainability-focused companies.

While some feel that the so-called “selfie” generation deserves a pat on the back for their efforts to take the bull by the horns and try and improve the earth’s condition—I know it just about gives those of us in agriculture a heart attack. Not because we in ag don’t want to see a more sustainable food system, one that constantly evolves and changes to meet the next set of environmental challenges, but because there’s no “one sustainability fits all.”

Sustainability is a word that lacks definition, or rather, lacks one definition.

I, like many in agriculture, define sustainability as a journey, rather than a destination. Sustainability is a means to constantly improve upon age-old traditions of environmental stewardship. I think of our American farmers and ranchers as the original recyclers—as those who look to pass on their land to the next generation in a better condition than when they themselves inherited it.

But as skepticism for corporations and government grows, consumers—and millennials in particular—become less and less confident that we in agriculture are doing the right thing when it comes to the environment.

So how do we engage with those millennials concerned about the environment; those who subscribe to the “socially responsible food movement?”

At the Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit in May, themed “Cracking the Millennial Code,” we’ll have a panel of college students from The George Washington University who will be discussing their relationship with food, as millennials. Everything from what they look for in the grocery store, to their cafeteria preferences—to yes, even how they get “the deets” (details) about farming and food production.

In preparation for this panel, I met with the four students who will be speaking at Summit late last week in GW’s new Office of Sustainability. Yes it’s true—GW has a whole office dedicated to sustainability.

You may be thinking: it’s no surprise that a “liberal,” East Coast school would have such an office—but it’s not the only one. In fact, this panel at the Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit will be moderated by a representative from Sodexo, the largest food-service provider in the U.S. and they work with countless schools nationwide to adopt more sustainable cafeteria practices.

What concerns me isn’t the desire of the GW’s and Sodexo’s of the world (and the millennials too!) to try and become more sustainable, but more, the definition of “sustainable” as it applies to meat, milk and eggs.  

As with most things, we in agriculture haven’t done the best job of highlighting all of our efforts—both collectively and individually—to practice good environmental stewardship and to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture.

But more than that—we haven’t defined our “benchmarks” for sustainability—and how we achieve those goals. Without properly and concretely defining those goals, we’re leaving the door wide open for corporations, activist groups or even the government to define what sustainability means for our industry.

I’ve written before that millennials are a generation marked by indecision, a generation famous for saying one thing and doing another. Yet—time and time again, survey after survey, millennials are found to care about “causes” more than any previous generation.

And one cause that’s clearly important is the environment. I can’t wait for our Summit audience to hear what these highly intelligent, passionate individuals have to say about all things food.

I know I walked out of my meeting last week, inspired—but also thinking, “wow—we must do more outreach on college campuses.” We must work harder to bridge the gap; we must be more present at discussions about hot issues—including sustainability—that are happening on college quads nationwide.

I’ve already agreed to do my part, I’ve accepted an invitation to speak at the Feeding the Planet Summit here in D.C. this summer.

How will you do your part?

Don’t miss the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit coming up this May 8-9, 2014 in Crystal City, Va. There’s still time to register at the Early Bird Rate, so don’t miss out! To Register, visit:

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About the Author

Emily Meredith
| Emily Meredith serves as the Communications Director for the Alliance and manages all aspects of the communications strategy. She is responsible for the Issues Management Committee and coordinating effective responses to the issues of the industry.

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Iowa  |  March, 31, 2014 at 09:20 AM

The big mistake is thinking that these collage kids are highly intelligent. They are programed robots by the college profesors that have thier own agenda. The one thing that is so sad is that kids have never been taught to think for them selves and question everything. To give you an example, when I was in school in science class we were taught that oil came from the dinosaurs. Now when old oil wells are refilling up the scienctists don't realy know where oil comes from.

Bob Milligan    
St. Paul MN  |  March, 31, 2014 at 09:21 AM

Wonderful blog Emily! Understanding millennials is crucial to agriculture as an industry and as an employer. Millennials are also referred to as the "trophy" generation because as they were growing up everyone was given a trophy for participation. Their inconsistency in "causes" may be because they are still searching for what it means to be meaningful to them. The implication as an employers is that millennials are much less willing than previous generations to work at a job that does not seem meaningful to them. I see this as a tremendous opportunity for agriculture as an industry and as an employer!

Ohio  |  March, 31, 2014 at 09:51 AM

Please ask a key question at the meeting in May - If George Washington is so interested in sustainability in food production - why do they not teach any courses in agriculture or offer a degree in any agriculture field? In fact why do these people believe all these experts in food, nutrition and agriculture that really have no credentials in the area. A journalism degree does not qualify a person as an expert in all fields.

Milwaukee, WI  |  March, 31, 2014 at 10:19 AM

The college I graduated from, with a Communication degree and agriculture concentration, also had an Office of Sustainability. It was actually a really good blend of sustainability in that yes, Sodexo got involved in some opportunities but a lot of research was done in biodiesel, grassland management and the like. A lot of the Environmental Science and Natural Resources majors were very involved in that office and they were primarily ag kids, but also some "city kids" who developed a greater interest in ag through their sustainability interest. We shouldn't disparage sustainability efforts, but rather look for ways to collaborate and find methods that suit all interests if at all possible. Looking forward to the panel - it should be an interesting one.

AZ Nurse    
Arizona  |  March, 31, 2014 at 10:45 AM

Emily, you ask how to convince consumers that the industrial pork industry is doing the right thing for the environment. Yet you fail to explain how large industrial hog facilities benefit our land, water, and air quality. According to a Rolling Stone article on Smithfield Pork: "All of a sudden we have this 800-pound gorilla in the pork industry," Successful Farming magazine warned – six years ago. There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. (link to article: In every one of your blogs, you blame consumers, environmentalists, animal protection advocates, and media for criticizing large scale agriculture. I understand that you are a paid apologist for the industry, but do you really believe that factory farms have not had a devastating effect on our environment and public health?

Wisconsin  |  March, 31, 2014 at 11:09 AM

I love it when someone starts throwing the words "factory farm" around. Define factory and you will find that every farm is exactly that, a factory. A place where raw materials are brought together to produce a product. But if you insist on complaining please be my guest. But also stop and think about why things are the way things are. Farms operate on two principals , commitment and labor. Labor is self explainitory. But how many people are willing to put in the time anymore? I've heard time and time again how the first thing any one wants to know is how much time off they're going to have. In farming that answer can approach nearly zero. The other, as mentioned, is commitment which comes in many forms including marriage and raising a family. Do you know what is meant when someone says family farm? Society has choose to give new definitions to words and ideas that are / were accepted for centuries. If you can tell us why those time tested ideas no longer apply, you will know why those large at operations exist.

Roger Scheibe    
Brookings SD  |  March, 31, 2014 at 11:50 AM

Great point Anna

April, 01, 2014 at 11:21 AM

I hope that at least some of our population can see that the word "sustainable" really has to mean "the ability to endure or last through hundreds of years." If we want a sustainable food supply and good health, we must begin to understand ecological principles instead of just waving a flag for our favorite (and often misguided) cause. This will lead us go understand that all life, food and fiber production and health begins with the soil. We must first protect and rebuild soil. Increasing biodiversity is far more important than trying to protect single (favored) species.

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